Signs and Symptoms of Bile Duct Cancer
Bile duct cancer does not usually cause signs or symptoms until later in the course of the disease, but sometimes symptoms can appear sooner and lead to an early diagnosis. If the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, treatment might be more effective.
When bile duct cancer does cause symptoms, it is usually because a bile duct is blocked.
Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes. Normally, bile is made by the liver and released into the intestine. Jaundice occurs when the liver can’t get rid of bile, which contains a greenish-yellow chemical called bilirubin. As a result, bilirubin backs up into the bloodstream and settles in different parts of the body. This can often be seen in the skin and the white part of the eyes.
Jaundice is the most common symptom of bile duct cancer, but most cases of jaundice are not caused by cancer. 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.
Excess bilirubin in the skin can also cause itching. Most people with bile duct cancer notice itching.
Bilirubin contributes to the brown color of bowel movements, so if it doesn’t reach the intestines, the color of a person’s stool might be lighter.
If the cancer blocks the release of bile and pancreatic juices into the intestine, a person might not be able to digest fatty foods. The undigested fat can also cause stools to be unusually pale. They might also be bulky, greasy, and float in the toilet.
When bilirubin levels in the blood get high, it can also come out in the urine and turn it dark.
Abdominal (belly) pain
Early bile duct cancers usually do not cause pain, but more advanced cancers may cause 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).
Some people with bile duct cancer develop fevers.
Nausea and vomiting
These are not common symptoms of bile duct cancer, but they may occur in people who develop an infection (cholangitis) as a result of bile duct blockage. They are often seen along with a fever.
Bile duct cancer is not common, and these symptoms and signs are more likely to be caused by something other than bile duct cancer. 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: November 1, 2014 Last Revised: January 20, 2016