Bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma)

Treating bile duct cancer

Your doctor will advise you on the best treatment for your cancer. This will depend on the type of cancer you have, whether it has spread and how far, your general health, and your treatment preferences.

Your treatment options may include:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • photodynamic therapy.

Surgery for bile duct cancer

This is the main treatment for bile duct cancer. Surgery to remove a bile duct cancer can be complex and isn't suitable for everyone. If surgery is an option for you it's important you get a referral to a surgeon who has an interest in these rare types of cancers. The type of operation you have will depend on the size of the cancer and whether it's spread into nearby tissue.

Operations can include:

  • removal of the bile ducts: this is an option for early stage cancers
  • partial liver resection: if the cancer has spread into the liver, the bile ducts and the affected part of the liver can be taken out.
  • Whipple procedure: this operation is done if the cancer has spread into nearby tissue and organs. It's a major operation and you'll need to be in hospital for at least 2 weeks. It removes the bile ducts, part of the stomach and small bowel, the pancreas, gallbladder and nearby lymph nodes
  • surgery to remove a blockage: this doesn't treat or cure the cancer but helps to relieve symptoms caused by the blockage. You may have a tube (stent) inserted to help drain away the bile.

Chemotherapy for bile duct cancer

You may have chemotherapy to help treat your cancer. You may have it alone or combined with radiotherapy. Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer drugs. It can be used to increase the chance of cure or to shrink the size of the cancer when a cure isn't possible. When cancer can't be cured, chemotherapy can improve survival, reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

The aim is to destroy all cancer cells while doing the least possible damage to normal cells. The drugs work by stopping cancer cells from growing and reproducing. Chemotherapy is usually given by injecting the drugs into a vein (intravenous treatment). There are other ways of having chemotherapy, including tablets.

Your doctor will discuss the treatment options for your type and stage of cancer. For more information see Understanding Chemotherapy or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to speak to a specialist cancer nurse.

Radiotherapy for bile duct cancer

Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells in a part of the body. Radiation can be targeted to cancer sites in your body. Treatment is carefully planned to do as little harm as possible to your normal body tissue around the tumour.

You may have internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) or external radiotherapy, which is radiotherapy beamed to the outside of the body.

Radiotherapy can't cure bile duct cancer but it may be given to help:

  • relieve symptoms caused by the cancer
  • shrink the cancer to make it easier to remove with surgery
  • shrink the cancer and control its growth.

For more information see Understanding Radiotherapy or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Photodynamic therapy for bile duct cancer

This uses a drug that makes cells sensitive to light. The drug is injected into a vein. It spreads through the body and is mainly attracted to the cancer cells. It doesn't become effective until it's exposed to laser light. In bile duct cancer it's used to help relieve symptoms.

The drug is usually injected about 2 days before you have an ERCP . During this procedure an endoscope , which has a small tube with a red laser light at the end of it, is placed into the bile duct. This laser light makes the drug active and kills the cancer cells.

After you have the injection of the dye you may be sensitive to light for a few days. Your doctor will discuss this with you and tell you what you need to do, like stay out of the sun. You may also have some pain, inflammation or bleeding from the bile duct after this procedure.

Expert content reviewers:

Cancer Council Victoria Support Division 

Talking bubbles icon

Questions about cancer?

Call or email our experienced cancer nurses for information and support.

Contact a cancer nurse