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About bile duct cancer

Read about bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma), where it develops, what the bile ducts are and how they work.

The bile ducts

The bile ducts are part of the digestive system. They are the tubes that connect the liver, the gallbladder and small bowel. The bile ducts carry bile. This is a fluid that helps to digest food, by breaking down fat. The liver makes bile, which is stored in the gallbladder.

Diagram showing the position of the gallbladder and bile ducts

There are two main bile ducts in the liver – the right and left hepatic ducts. They join together just outside the liver to form the common hepatic duct. 

Another bile duct comes from the gallbladder. This is called the cystic duct.

The hepatic duct and cystic duct join together to form the common bile duct. 

The common bile duct passes behind the pancreas and joins the pancreatic duct. The point where they join is called the ampulla. The combined ducts open into the small bowel, where bile is released. The release of bile is controlled by a valve called the sphincter of Oddi.

When we eat, the gallbladder releases bile into the small bowel to help digest food.

Diagram showing the position of the bile ducts

Where bile duct cancer develops

Bile duct cancer is also called cholangiocarcinoma (pronounced kol-an-gee-oh-car-sin-oh-ma).

Doctors divide bile duct cancers into 3 groups depending on where they develop in the biliary system:

  • intrahepatic region – this means within the liver and includes the right and left hepatic ducts and their smaller branches
  • perihilar (hilar) region – this is just outside the liver where the right and left hepatic ducts meet
  • distal region – this includes the bile ducts close to the small bowel and the pancreas
Diagram showing the groups of bile ducts

How common is it

In the UK about 1,800 people are diagnosed each year with intrahepatic bile duct cancer. Around 510 people are diagnosed with extrahepatic bile duct cancer. 

The number of people getting bile duct cancer has slowly increased in the last few years. It is more common in men than women. Your risk of getting bile duct cancer increases as you get older. It can develop at any age but most people who develop it are in their 60s and 70s.

Last reviewed: 
13 Jan 2015
  • Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness (11th edition)
    Ross and Wilson
    Churchill Livingstone, 2010

  • Incidence statistics provided by the Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK using data from the Office for National Statistics and the regional cancer registries in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland , and using the latest data (annual average number of cases in the UK between 2012 – 2014).

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