Bile duct cancer is a rare malignancy that calls for a strong multidisciplinary approach to treatment. Physician specialists at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin treat many patients with bile duct tumors every year, and they are familiar with the subtleties of this unusual disease.

Bile Duct Cancer Overview

One of the key functions of the liver is to produce bile, a thick fluid that helps the body digest fats. Bile is transported from the liver to the intestines through long, tube-like structures called bile ducts. A network of bile ducts branches throughout the liver. In addition, a specific branch of the biliary system called the cystic duct drains bile stored in the gallbladder. The entire system converges to a common channel and drains into the small intestines.

Cholangiocarcinoma is a cancerous tumor that originates in a bile duct. About 10 percent of these tumors arise in a part of the biliary system that is inside the liver. These cancers are known as intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas. These intrahepatic bile duct tumors are treated in much the same way as other primary liver tumors.

The majority of bile duct tumors, approximately 90 percent, arise in a bile duct that is outside the liver. These cancers are known as extrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma. Tumors of this type often obstruct the flow of bile, causing it to back up into the liver. This leads to the symptoms of yellow skin (jaundice) and itching. Extrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma can also lead to liver and kidney dysfunction, malnutrition, and infection of bile (cholangitis).

Only a few thousand new cases of extrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. Gastrointestinal inflammatory conditions can increase a person’s risk of developing this cancer.

Treatment Options

Treatment for bile duct cancer depends on the location, type and extent of the tumor. Patients need a multidisciplinary care plan that incorporates all potential therapies in the treatment decisions and plan.

Clinical Trials

Patients with bile duct cancer may be eligible for novel therapies conducted under clinical trial protocols. See our clinical trials page for a complete list of investigational treatments currently available at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin.