Bile Duct (Cholangiocarcinoma) Cancer

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Treating Bile Duct Cancer TOPICS

Palliative therapy for bile duct cancer

Palliative therapy is treatment given to help control or reduce symptoms caused by advanced cancer. It is not meant to be a curative treatment. If the cancer has spread too far to be completely removed by surgery, doctors may focus on palliative operations, palliative radiation, and other palliative therapies. Because these cancers tend to advance quickly, doctors try to use palliative therapies that are less likely to affect a person's quality of life, when possible.

Biliary stent or biliary catheter

If cancer is blocking the bile duct, the doctor may insert a small tube (called a stent or catheter) into the duct to help keep it open. This may be done as part of a cholangiography procedure such as PTC or ERCP (see the section, "How is bile duct cancer diagnosed?") or, in some cases, during surgery. A stent opens the duct to allow the bile to drain into the small intestine, while a catheter drains into a bag outside the body that can be emptied when needed. The stent or catheter may need to be replaced every few months if it becomes clogged and to reduce the risk of infection and gallbladder inflammation.

Biliary bypass

Another option to allow bile to reach the small intestine is to use a surgery called biliary bypass. There are several different biliary bypass operations, and the decision on which one to use is based on the location of the blockage. As mentioned in the "Surgery for bile duct cancer" section, this option is more likely to be used if a patient is already having surgery and the cancer turns out to be unresectable. While a bypass is clearly more invasive than placing a stent or catheter, it has some advantages in that the effects may last longer and infection is less likely to be a problem.

Palliative radiation therapy

Radiation therapy may be used to help relieve pain and other symptoms by killing some cancer cells that are causing blockage of the bile duct or are pressing on nerves.

Tumor ablation

Tumors in the liver that can't be resected can sometimes be destroyed (ablated) by placing a long metal probe through the skin and into the tumor. The tip of the probe is then heated (in radiofrequency ablation) or frozen (in cryotherapy) to kill the cancer cells.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT)

For this technique, a light-activated drug is injected into a vein. A few days later, an endoscope (a long, flexible tube that can be used to look inside the body) is passed down the throat and into the bile duct. A special red light on the end of the endoscope is aimed at the tumor, causing the cells to die. The combination of PDT and stenting can help patients with bile duct cancer whose tumors aren’t resectable live longer.

Alcohol injection

To relieve pain, doctors may deaden the nerves that convey sensations of pain from the bile duct and intestinal area to the brain by injecting these nerves with alcohol. This can be done during surgery or later with the guidance of a CT scan.

Pain medicines

Doctors can prescribe strong pain-relieving drugs if needed. Some people with cancer may hesitate to use opioid drugs (such as morphine) for fear of being sleepy all the time or becoming addicted to them. But many people get very effective pain relief from these medicines without serious side effects. It's very important to let your cancer care team know if you are having pain so that it can be treated effectively. Read more about managing cancer pain in our document Pain Control: A Guide for Those With Cancer and Their Loved Ones.


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