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What Is Bile Duct Cancer?

To help you understand what is happening when you have cancer, it helps to understand how your body works normally. Our bodies are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow and multiply when the body needs them, and die out when the body does not need them. Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow whether your body needs them or not.

Illustration of liver and biliary system
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Bile duct cancer can develop in any part of the bile ducts. The bile ducts are thin tubes that transport bile from the liver to the gallbladder and from the gallbladder to the small intestine. This cancer may cause different symptoms, depending on where it starts.

  • Perihilar or proximal bile duct cancers. These develop where the main right and left bile ducts join as they are leaving the liver. Most bile duct cancers are in this area.

  • Distal bile duct cancers. These typically develop in the common bile duct near the first part of the small intestine.

  • Intrahepatic bile duct cancers. These commonly develop in the tiny bile ducts inside the liver. A small percentage of bile duct cancers are this type.

Most bile duct cancers--about 95 percent--fit into a category of cancers called adenocarcinomas. Bile duct adenocarcinoma forms in mucous glands lining the bile ducts. It is also called biliary adenocarcinoma or cholangiocarcinoma.

If an adenocarcinoma starts in another organ, such as the pancreas, colon, or lung, it may spread to the liver. Then it is considered metastasis in the liver.

If you or a family member has been diagnosed with biliary cancer, you may want to consider getting a second opinion. In fact, some insurance companies require a second opinion for such diagnoses. It is very rare that the time it will take to get a second opinion will have a negative impact on your treatment. The peace of mind it may bring may be well worth the effort.