Bile Duct (Cholangiocarcinoma) Cancer

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

How is bile duct cancer diagnosed?

Most bile duct cancers are not found until patients go to a doctor because they have symptoms. The doctor will need to take a history and do a physical exam, and then might order some tests.

History and physical exam

If there is reason to suspect that you have bile duct cancer, your doctor will want to take a complete medical history to check for symptoms and risk factors, including your family history.

A physical exam is done to look for signs of bile duct cancer and other health problems. If bile duct cancer is suspected, the exam will focus mostly on the abdomen to check for any masses, tenderness, or buildup of fluid. The skin and the white part of the eyes will be checked for jaundice (a yellowish color).

If symptoms and/or the results of the physical exam suggest bile duct cancer might be present, more tests will probably be done. These could include lab tests, imaging tests, and other procedures.

Blood tests

Tests of liver and gallbladder function

The doctor may order lab tests to find out how much bilirubin is in the blood. Bilirubin is the chemical that causes jaundice. Problems in the bile duct, gallbladder, or liver may cause too much bilirubin to remain in the blood. A high bilirubin level tells the doctor that there may be problems with the bile duct, gallbladder, or liver.

The doctor may also order tests for other substances in your blood, such as albumin, alkaline phosphatase, AST, ALT, and GGT. These are sometimes called liver enzymes or liver function tests. They can also indicate bile duct, gallbladder, or liver disease. If levels of these substances are higher, it might point to blockage of the bile duct, but they cannot show if it is due to cancer or some other reason.

Tumor markers

Tumor markers are substances made by cancer cells that can sometimes be found in the blood. People with bile duct cancer may have high blood levels of the carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) and CA 19-9 tumor markers. High amounts of these substances often mean that cancer is present, but the high levels can be caused by problems other than bile duct cancers. Also, not all bile duct cancers make these tumor markers, so low or normal levels do not mean cancer is not present.

Imaging tests

Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, or sound waves to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests may be done for a number of reasons, including to help find a suspicious area that might be cancerous, to learn how far cancer may have spread, and to help find out if treatment has been effective.

Imaging tests can often identify and locate a bile duct blockage. But they often do not reveal if the blockage is caused by a tumor or a benign problem such as scarring.


Ultrasound (US or ultrasonography) is often the first imaging test done in people who have symptoms such as jaundice or pain in the right upper part of their abdomen. For this test, a small instrument called a transducer emits sound waves and picks up their echoes as they bounce off internal organs. The echoes are converted by a computer into a black-and-white image that is displayed on a video screen. The echoes produced by most tumors differ from those of normal tissue. The echo patterns can help distinguish between some types of benign and malignant tumors.

This is a very easy procedure to have and does not use radiation. For an ultrasound exam of the liver, you simply lie on a table while the doctor or ultrasound technician places the transducer (which is shaped like a wand) on the skin over the right upper part of the abdomen. Usually, the skin is first lubricated with gel.

Endoscopic or laparoscopic ultrasound: These techniques allow the doctor to place the ultrasound transducer inside the body and closer to the bile duct to produce more detailed images than a standard ultrasound. The transducer is on the end of a thin, lighted tube that has an attached viewing device (an endoscope or laparoscope). The tube is either passed through the mouth, down through the stomach, and into the small intestine near the bile duct (endoscopic ultrasound) or through a surgical incision (cut) in the side of the patient's body (laparoscopic ultrasound).

If there is a tumor, the doctor may be able to tell how far it has grown and spread, which can help in planning for surgery. Ultrasound may be able to show if nearby lymph nodes are enlarged, which may be a sign that cancer has reached them. It may also be used to guide a needle into a suspicious node so that cells can be removed (biopsied) and looked at under a microscope.

Computed tomography (CT) scan

The CT scan is an x-ray procedure that produces detailed cross-sectional images of your body. Instead of taking one x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you. A computer then combines these into images of slices of the part of your body that is being studied.

A CT scanner has been described as a large donut, with a narrow table in the middle opening. You will need to lie still on the table while the scan is being done. CT scans take longer than regular x-rays, and you might feel a bit confined by the ring while the pictures are being taken.

Before any pictures are taken, you may be asked to drink 1 to 2 pints of a liquid called oral contrast. This helps outline the intestine so that certain areas are not mistaken for tumors. You may also receive an IV (intravenous) line through which a different kind of contrast dye (IV contrast) is injected. This helps better outline structures in your body.

The injection can cause some flushing (redness and warm feeling). Some people are allergic and get hives or, rarely, more serious reactions like trouble breathing and low blood pressure. Be sure to tell the doctor if you have ever had a reaction to any contrast material used for x-rays.

CT scans can have several uses:

  • They often help make the initial diagnosis of bile duct cancer by showing tumors in the area.
  • They can help stage the cancer (determining the extent of its spread). CT scans can also show the organs near the bile duct (especially the liver), as well as lymph nodes and distant organs where cancer may have spread to. This can help to find out if surgery is a good treatment option.
  • CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy needle precisely into a suspected tumor or metastasis. For this procedure, called a CT-guided needle biopsy, the patient remains on the CT scanning table, while a radiologist advances a biopsy needle through the skin and toward the location of the mass. CT scans are repeated until the needle is within the mass. A biopsy sample is then removed and looked at under a microscope.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan

Like CT scans, MRI scans provide detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays. The energy from the radio waves is absorbed and then released in a pattern formed by the type of body tissue and by certain diseases. A computer translates the pattern into very detailed images of parts of the body. A contrast material called gadolinium may be injected into a vein before the scan to better see details.

MRI scans provide a great deal of detail and can be very helpful in looking at the bile ducts and nearby organs. Sometimes they can help tell a benign tumor from a malignant one. Special types of MRI scans may also be used in people who may have bile duct cancer. MR cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) can be used to look at the bile ducts and is described in the section on cholangiography. MR angiography (MRA) looks at blood vessels and is mentioned in the section on angiography.

MRI scans may be a little more uncomfortable than CT scans. They take longer -- often up to an hour. You may be placed inside a large cylindrical tube, which is confining and can upset people with a fear of enclosed spaces. Special, "open" MRI machines can help with this if needed. The MRI machine makes buzzing and clicking noises that you may find disturbing. Some places will provide earplugs to help block this noise out.


A cholangiogram is an imaging test that looks specifically at the bile ducts to see if they are blocked, narrowed, or dilated (widened). They can be used in people who may have bile duct cancer to look for abnormalities and to help plan surgery. There are several types of cholangiograms, which have different pros and cons.

Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): In this procedure, a doctor passes a long, flexible tube (endoscope) down the patient's throat, through the esophagus and stomach, and into the first part of the small intestine. A small catheter (tube) is passed from the end of the endoscope and into the common bile duct. The patient is usually sedated so that the procedure is not uncomfortable. A small amount of contrast dye is injected through the tube to help outline the bile duct and pancreatic duct as x-rays are taken. The images can show narrowing or blockage of the bile duct or pancreatic duct. This test is more invasive than MRCP (see the next section), but has the advantage of allowing the doctor to take samples of cells or fluid to be looked at under a microscope to diagnose cancer. It can also be used to place a stent (a small tube) into a duct to help keep it open.

Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP): This is a less invasive way to image the bile ducts than ERCP. It uses the same type of machine used for standard MRI scans. It does not require an endoscope or an IV infusion of a contrast agent.

Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC): In this procedure, the doctor places a thin, hollow needle through the skin and into a bile duct within the liver. (A local anesthetic is used to numb the area before inserting the needle.) A contrast dye is then injected through the needle, and x-rays are taken as it passes through the bile ducts. Like ERCP, this approach can also be used to take samples of fluid or tissues or to place stents (small, hollow tubes) in the bile duct to help keep it open.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

In this test, radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into the patient's vein to look for cancer cells. (The amount of radioactivity used is very low.) Because cancers use glucose (sugar) at a higher rate than normal tissues, the radioactivity will tend to concentrate in the cancer. A scanner can spot the radioactive deposits. This test can help spot small collections of cancer cells. It may also help tell if a tumor is benign or malignant. The picture is not finely detailed like a CT or MRI scan, but it can provide helpful information about your whole body.

A PET scan can sometimes help tell if a bile duct obstruction is caused by a cancer or not, but not all doctors agree on how useful it is for bile duct cancer. PET scans can also be useful if your doctor thinks the cancer may have spread (or returned after treatment) but doesn't know where. PET scans can be used instead of several other imaging tests because they scan your whole body.

Some machines are able to perform both a PET and CT scan at the same time (PET/CT scan). This allows the radiologist to compare areas of higher radioactivity on the PET with what is seen on the CT.


Angiography is an x-ray procedure for looking at blood vessels. For this test, a small amount of contrast dye is injected into an artery to outline blood vessels before x-ray images are taken. The images allow the doctors to see if blood flow in an area is blocked or affected by a tumor, and they can show any abnormal blood vessels in the area. Angiography can also show whether a bile duct cancer has grown through the walls of certain blood vessels. This information is mainly used to help surgeons decide whether a cancer can be removed and to help plan the operation.

Angiography can be uncomfortable because you have to hold very still while the radiologist who does the procedure puts a small catheter (a flexible hollow tube) into the artery leading to the bile duct to inject the dye. Usually the catheter is put into an artery in your inner thigh and threaded up into the artery supplying the bile duct. A local anesthetic is often used to numb the area before inserting the catheter. Then the dye is injected quickly to outline all the vessels while the x-rays are being taken.

Angiography may also be done with a CT scanner (CT angiography) or an MRI scanner (MR angiography). These techniques give information about the blood vessels without the need for a catheter, but you may still need an IV line so that a contrast dye can be injected into the bloodstream during the imaging.

Other tests

Doctors may also place special instruments (endoscopes) into the body to get a more direct look at the bile duct and surrounding areas. The scopes may be passed through small surgical incisions or through natural body openings like the mouth.


In a laparoscopic procedure, a doctor inserts a thin tube with a light and a small video camera on the end (a laparoscope) through the abdominal wall to look at the bile duct, gallbladder, liver, and other organs and tissues in the area. The tube is inserted through a small incision (cut) in the front of the abdomen. (Sometimes more than one cut is made.) This procedure is typically done in the operating room while you are under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep).

Laparoscopy provides a view of organs that can help in planning surgery or other treatments. By looking at areas where the cancer may have spread, your doctor can better assess the stage (extent) of the cancer. If needed, doctors can also insert instruments through the incisions to remove small biopsy samples to be looked at under a microscope. This procedure is often done before planning surgery to remove the cancer, in order to make sure the tumor can be removed completely.


In this procedure, the doctor passes a very thin fiber-optic tube into the bile duct through the mouth after routine ERCP or through a needle placed into a liver bile duct through the abdominal wall. From there it can be maneuvered into the bile duct. This lets the doctor see any tumors and even biopsy them.


Imaging tests can suggest that a bile duct cancer is likely to be present, but in many cases a sample of bile duct cells or tissue is removed (biopsied) and looked at under a microscope to be sure of the diagnosis.

But a biopsy may not always be done before surgery for a possible bile duct cancer. If imaging tests (ultrasound, CT or MRI scans, cholangiography, etc.) suggest there is a tumor in the bile duct, the doctor may decide to proceed directly to surgery and to treat it as a bile duct cancer (see the section, "Surgery for bile duct cancer").

Types of biopsies

There are several ways to take biopsy samples to diagnose bile duct cancer.

During cholangiography

If ERCP or PTC is being done, a sample of bile may be collected during the procedure to look for tumor cells within the fluid.

Bile duct cells and tiny fragments of bile duct tissue can also be sampled by biliary brushing. Instead of injecting contrast dye and taking x-ray pictures (as for ERCP or PTC), the doctor advances a small brush with a long, flexible handle through the endoscope or needle. The end of the brush is used to scrape cells and small tissue fragments from the lining of the bile duct, which are then looked at under a microscope.

During cholangioscopy

Biopsy specimens can also be taken during cholangioscopy. This lets the doctor see the inside surface of the bile duct and take samples of suspicious areas.

Needle biopsy

In other cases, a needle biopsy may be done. For this test, a thin, hollow needle is inserted through the skin and into the tumor without first making a surgical incision. (The skin is numbed first with a local anesthetic.) The needle is usually guided into place using ultrasound or CT scanning. With this approach, the needle is slowly moved forward while doctors check its position by viewing images provided by one of these imaging tests. When the images show that the needle is in the tumor, a sample is drawn into the needle and sent to the lab to be viewed under a microscope.

In most cases, this is done as a fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy, which uses a very thin needle attached to a syringe to suck out (aspirate) a sample of cells. If this isn't successful, a core needle biopsy may be done, which uses a slightly larger needle to get a bigger sample.

For more information about biopsies and how they are tested, see our separate document Testing Biopsy and Cytology Specimens for Cancer.

Last Medical Review: 10/30/2013
Last Revised: 10/30/2013