Bile Duct Cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma) (cont.)

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What are bile duct cancer symptoms and signs?

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The initial symptoms of bile duct cancer occur because of inability for bile to drain, causing liver inflammation (hepatitis). Symptoms include yellow coloring of the skin (jaundice), itching, abdominal pain, bloating, and weight loss. Low-grade fever can be present, and there can be darkening in the color of urine and stool.

Unfortunately, bile duct tumors may not cause any symptoms until they have grown in size and the cancer has spread (metastasized) from beyond its original location. Abdominal pain is often a late symptom and is usually located in the right upper quadrant of the belly and may be associated with a tender, enlarged liver.

How is bile duct cancer diagnosed?

History and physical examination are key clues for the diagnosis of bile duct cancer. Painless jaundice (yellow/orange coloring of the skin) may be the only initial clue. The history often includes reviewing alcohol use, drug use or recent illnesses that can be associated with hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver. Other symptoms may be weight loss, loss of appetite, weakness, loss of energy, and easy bruising or bleeding.

The physical examination may be useful in detecting tenderness in the abdomen, especially in the right upper quadrant beneath the ribs (where the liver is located). A quarter of patients with bile duct cancer will have an enlarged liver that can be palpated or felt on exam. On general exam, the patient is often jaundiced, having yellow-tinged skin. This may be seen most easily in the white portion (sclerae) of the eyes or under the tongue.

Blood tests are often ordered to assess liver function. Liver enzymes (AST, ALT, GGT), bilirubin levels, complete blood count, electrolytes, BUN and creatinine, and INR/PTT (international normalized ratio/partial thromboplastin time) and PT (prothrombin time).

There is no blood test that can specifically diagnose bile duct cancer. The diagnosis is confirmed by tissue sample obtained by biopsy and pathology examination of the cells obtained by that biopsy sample.

Imaging may be used including ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI to look for a tumor and its location

ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography) is a specialized test used to examine the bile duct as it enters the duodenum. ERCP is performed by a gastroenterologist using a fiberoptic camera at the end of a flexible viewing tube. The tube is passed through the mouth and passed through the stomach into the first part of the small intestine where the common bile duct enters from the gallbladder. This is used to detect diseases that affect the bile ducts including bile duct cancer, gallstones stuck in the bile duct, and abnormal narrowing of the bile duct. Dye can be injected to outline the bile ducts and detect obstruction. Biopsies or cell washings can be obtained to look for cancer cells. If a blockage is found, the gastroenterologist may be able to place a stent during the same procedure.

Sometimes, an interventional radiologist may be needed to obtain a tissue biopsy by threading a needle through the skin into the liver.

Once the diagnosis of bile duct cancer is made, it is important to stage the cancer to help direct potential treatment. The three parts of TNM staging include the following:

  • T is for the primary tumor and how much it has grown locally and invaded other structures. For a bile duct tumor, this includes the liver, gallbladder, pancreas, stomach, and intestine.
  • N is for the lymph nodes that are involved. The more nodes involved and the farther the distance from the bile duct, the more severe the cancer.
  • M is for metastasis. Has the tumor spread to other parts of the body?

Cancer can be staged from 0 to 4, where 0 is no tumor, 1 is local tumor with no spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body, and 4 is significant local growth and lymph node involvement and spread to other parts of the body.

While staging is important, as well as detecting tumor spread beyond the liver and bile duct, often the critical staging questions can only be answered at surgery. Then it an assessment can be made as to whether or not the whole tumor be resected or removed. Survival rates are markedly improved if complete resection is possible.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/4/2015

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