Bile Duct (Cholangiocarcinoma) Cancer

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Signs and symptoms of bile duct cancer

Signs and symptoms may not be present until the later stages of bile duct cancer, but in some cases they may lead to an early diagnosis. If you go to your doctor when you first notice symptoms, your cancer might be diagnosed at an early stage, when it is most treatable.

When bile duct cancer does cause symptoms, it is usually because the bile duct is blocked.

Jaundice

Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes that is caused by the build-up of a substance called bilirubin. This is the most common symptom of bile duct cancer. Normally, bile is made by the liver and released into the intestine. Jaundice occurs when the liver cannot get rid of bile, which contains bilirubin. As a result, bilirubin "backs up" into the bloodstream and settles into tissues. Bilirubin is greenish yellow and colors all the body tissues, including the skin and the white part of the eyes, making people with this condition begin to look yellow.

It is important to realize that cancer does not cause most cases of jaundice. Jaundice is more often caused by hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) or a gallstone that has traveled to the bile duct. But whenever jaundice occurs, a doctor should be seen right away.

Itching

Excess bilirubin in the blood can also reach the skin and can cause itching. Most people with bile duct cancer notice itching.

Light colored stools

Bilirubin contributes to the brown color of bowel movements, so if its flow into the intestine is blocked the color of a person's stool might be lighter.

Dark urine

When bilirubin levels in the blood get high, it can also come out in the urine and turn it dark.

Abdominal pain

Early bile duct cancers usually do not cause pain, but more advanced cancers may lead to abdominal pain, especially below the ribs on the right side.

Loss of appetite/weight loss

People with bile duct cancer may not feel hungry and may lose weight (without dieting).

Fever

Some people with bile duct cancer develop fevers.

Nausea and vomiting

This is not a common symptom of bile duct cancer, but it may be seen in people who develop an infection (cholangitis) as a result of bile duct blockage. It is often seen along with a fever.

These are symptoms and signs of bile duct cancer, but it is important to remember that they are more likely to be caused by non-cancerous diseases. For example, people with gallstones may have many of these same symptoms. There are many far more common causes of abdominal pain than bile duct cancer. And hepatitis (an inflamed liver most often caused by infection with a virus) is a much more common cause of jaundice. Still, if you have any of these problems, it's important to see your doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed.


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