Cholangiocarcinoma – An Overview of Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

What is Cholangiocarcinoma?

Cholangiocarcinoma, also known as bile duct cancer, affects the bile ducts, which are the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the small intestine. Cholangiocarcinoma is a relatively rare form of cancer but can be very aggressive.

Risk Factors

Although there isn’t one specific cause of cholangiocarcinoma, some known associated risk factors exist.

  • Increasing age
  • Male sex
  • Having a history of cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver
  • Having a history of primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), which is a chronic inflammation of the bile duct
  • Family history of cholangiocarcinoma


The exact symptoms of cholangiocarcinoma may vary from each person. Some common side effects can include:

  • Jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • Itching of the skin
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Dark urine


If someone presents to their healthcare provider with the above symptoms, an evaluation of the cause of these symptoms can include imaging studies. Studies such

MRI, CT scan, or ultrasound can picture the liver and bile ducts to look for abnormalities.

A specialized scan called an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) can be done. This procedure uses an endoscope (a long, flexible tube with a camera on end) and X-ray imaging to visualize the bile ducts and take samples for testing.

Ultimately a biopsy, in which a small sample of tissue is taken from the suspected tumor, is done to confirm the diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma.


The treatment plan will vary depending on the stage and location of cancer, as well as the overall health of the patient. Treatment options for cholangiocarcinoma include:

  • Surgery: Surgery to remove the tumor is the primary treatment for cholangiocarcinoma. The type of surgery will depend on the location and stage of cancer.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells. It may be given alone or in combination with surgery.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given alone or in combination with radiation therapy.
  • Palliative care, which focuses on relieving symptoms and improving quality of life, is often necessary for advanced cases of cholangiocarcinoma.


Cholangiocarcinoma is a rare but aggressive cancer that forms in the bile ducts. If you think you may be at risk for developing this disease, speak with your doctor about steps you can take to lower your risk. There are also treatment options available if you are diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma. With prompt diagnosis and treatment, patients can often achieve remission or slow the progression of their disease.


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