Cholangiocarcinoma is a cancer of the bile ducts. These glands carry bile away from the liver to the small intestine. It is a fairly rare type of cancer; approximately 2,000-3,000 people are diagnosed with this condition in the United States each year. Although it can occur in young people, the disease mainly affects patients over 65 years of age; the average age of the diagnosed patient is 73. The disease is much more common in some areas of Asia and the Middle East.
Cholangiocarcinoma Signs & Symptoms
Patients with abnormal liver function or obstructive jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes) are at an especially high risk of developing cholangiocarcinoma. The condition can appear anywhere in the bile duct, either inside or on the outside of the liver. Patients whose tumors have formed on the outside of the liver are likely to contract jaundice.
Other symptoms can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Generalized itching
- Unusual stool or urine color
These symptoms can indicate an abnormality within the liver—if any symptom persists for more than 2 weeks, seek medical attention immediately.
Cholangiocarcinoma Diagnosis & Treatment
Cholangiocarcinoma is definitively diagnosed by a biopsy, when a small tissue sample is collected and examined under a microscope.
Doctors may prescribe a number of other tests, either individually or a combination, in order to make a definitive diagnosis. The most common tests are:
Imaging: A CT or CAT scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) take pictures of the body’s internal organs and will show any abnormalities within the liver.
Endoscopy: In this procedure, a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope is inserted directly into the organ (in this instance, the liver) to detect any abnormalities.
Exploratory surgery: A doctor may perform an exploratory procedure if the exact location of the mass is unknown.
Surgery is the only known means of effective treatment; however, cholangiocarcinoma is an extremely aggressive condition. It is considered to be incurable and lethal unless all of the tumors are fully removed. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the disease, many patients’ conditions are advanced before they are diagnosed.
Patients whose tumors have been removed successfully are never fully cured and must continue with aggressive palliative care, such as chemotherapy or radiation, in order to prevent a recurrence.