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We don’t know the exact cause of most bile duct cancers, but researchers have found some risk factors that make a person more likely to develop bile duct cancer. There seems to be a link between this cancer and things that irritate and inflame the bile ducts, whether it’s bile duct stones, infestation with a parasite, or something else.
Scientists are starting to understand how inflammation might lead to certain changes in the DNA of cells, making them grow out of control and form cancers. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes – the instructions for how our cells function.
Cancers can be caused by DNA changes (mutations) that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. Changes in many different genes are usually needed for a cell to become cancer.
We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than how we look. Some people inherit DNA mutations from their parents that greatly increase their risk for certain cancers. But inherited gene mutations are not thought to cause very many bile duct cancers.
Gene mutations related to bile duct cancers are usually acquired during life rather than being inherited. For example, acquired changes in the TP53 tumor suppressor gene are found in most bile duct cancers. Other genes that may play a role in bile duct cancers include KRAS, HER2, and ALK. Some of the gene changes that lead to bile duct cancer might be caused by inflammation. But sometimes the cause of these changes is not known. Many gene changes might just be random events that sometimes happen inside a cell, without having an outside cause.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Abou-Alfa GK, Jarnagin W, Lowery M, D’Angelica M, Brown K, Ludwig E, Covey A, Kemeny N, Goodman KA, Shia J, O’Reilly EM. Liver and bile duct cancer. In: Neiderhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA. Elsevier; 2014:1373-1395.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®), Hepatobiliary Cancers, Version 2.2018 -- June 7, 2018. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/hepatobiliary.pdf on June 19, 2018.
Patel T, Borad MJ. Carcinoma of the biliary tree. In: DeVita VT, Lawrence TS, Rosenberg SA, eds. DeVita, Hellman, and Rosenberg’s Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015:715-735.
Last Revised: July 3, 2018
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