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Surgery to remove cancer

Find out more about surgery to completely remove bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) and some complications you might have. 

About surgery to remove bile duct cancer

All operations to completely remove bile duct cancer are major surgery. Only surgeons with specialist knowledge and experience should do this type of operation. This type of surgery is not suitable for everyone. You need to be generally fit and the cancer must be at an early stage.

Unfortunately many people with bile duct cancer have advanced cancer when they are diagnosed. Surgery to remove the cancer is then not usually possible.

There is always a risk of problems after a major operation. There is also a risk that the cancer can come back after surgery. The risk of the cancer coming back is lower with small tumours.

Portal vein embolisation

Portal vein embolisation (PVE) means blocking off part of the blood flow to the area of liver that has the cancer. PVE does not directly treat your cancer. But it can make it possible to remove a cancer in the bile ducts inside the liver. If you need PVE, you have it before surgery to remove the cancer.

The aim of PVE is to shrink the area of the liver affected by the cancer and increase the size of the healthy part of the liver by allowing it to grow. The liver is the only body organ that is able to grow back. Surgery to remove a cancer may leave only a small amount of healthy liver and this increases the risk of liver failure. So PVE allows your healthy liver to grow before you have the cancer surgery.

Having PVE and allowing healthy liver to regenerate before surgery means there is more healthy liver left behind after the operation. Your doctors may suggest that you have PVE if you have an early stage intrahepatic or hilar bile duct cancer.

Before you have PVE you have an injection to make you sleepy. Your doctor injects a local anaesthetic into the right side of your tummy (abdomen). They then put a needle into your side and use dye and an X-ray machine to find the right vein. The doctor injects a special glue into the vein. The glue blocks the blood supply to that part of the liver.

You have this procedure in the X-ray department. It usually takes between 1 to 2 hours. You will have to stay in hospital overnight so that the nurses can keep a check on you. The main side effects are:

  • pain
  • bruising
  • bleeding – your nurses will check you regularly
  • infection

You usually have to wait about a month after PVE before you have surgery.

Surgery to remove bile duct cancers in the liver

If your cancer is in the bile ducts in your liver (intrahepatic bile duct cancer), your surgeon may be able to remove it and some of the surrounding liver tissue. This operation is called a resection or a hepatectomy.

Sometimes the surgeon needs to remove one of the lobes of the liver. This operation is called a lobectomy. The liver is made up of 2 main lobes. The lobes are divided into segments.

Many people have concerns about surgery that includes removing part of the liver. They may worry that their liver may not work well enough if some of it is removed. But if you have no underlying medical problems with your liver (such as cirrhosis) it is possible for the liver to enlarge and work normally.

Surgery to remove perihilar bile duct cancers

Perihilar region cancers start in the area where the right and left hepatic ducts join together just outside the liver. The type of surgery you have depends on the position of the cancer and how big it is. The surgeon usually removes:

  • the bile duct containing the tumour and the common bile duct
  • part of the liver
  • the gallbladder
  • the nearly lymph nodes

Your surgeon may also need to remove part of your pancreas and small bowel.

Your surgeon will try to reduce the chance of the cancer coming back by taking out all the cancer. They will remove the tumour and also a border of tissue around it that does not contain any cancer cells. They call this a clear margin. To get a clear margin you may need to have part of your liver removed, as well as other organs close to the bile duct. The amount your surgeon needs to remove depends on where the cancer is in the bile duct and how large it is.  

About a third of people diagnosed with this type of cancer are able to have surgery.

Surgery to remove distal bile duct cancers

Distal bile duct cancers start in the common bile duct near the pancreas. Surgery to remove distal bile duct cancers includes removing the cancer and the bile duct along with nearby lymph nodes. Most people also need to have a part of their pancreas and part of their small bowel removed. Doctors call this operation a pancreaticoduodenectomy [(pank-ree-at-ic-oh dew-oh-den-ek-tom-ee)] or a Whipple operation.

To reduce the chance of the cancer coming back the surgeon needs to make sure they have taken away a border of healthy tissue around the tumour. This lowers the risk of cancer cells being left behind. If there are no cancer cells in the border of tissue the surgeon removes, they call it a clear margin.

Rarely, people with distal bile duct cancers also need to have part of their liver removed.

Risk of cancer coming back after surgery

After any cancer surgery there is a risk that the cancer may come back. The risk of this happening depends on a number of factors including:

  • the size of your cancer and how far it had grown (the cancer stage)
  • where it is in the body
  • whether the surgeon is able to remove a clear margin of tissue from all around the cancer

A clear margin is a border of tissue around the cancer that does not contain any cancer cells. We know from research that it can be difficult for the surgeon to remove a clear margin around bile duct cancers, because of the position of the bile ducts and their closeness to other organs. This increases the risk of the cancer coming back.

Make sure that you discuss the risk of your cancer coming back with your surgeon and have an opportunity to ask questions.

Possible complications

A complication is anything that happens after surgery that makes your recovery more difficult. Chest infections and blood clots are possible complications after any surgery.

All operations to completely remove bile duct cancer are major surgery. The aim is to try to cure your cancer. So you may feel it is worth taking some of these risks. Make sure that you discuss the possible complications with your surgeon and have an opportunity to ask questions. Your family may also need to talk things through with your surgeon so that they can fully understand your situation.

Complications are more likely with bigger operations. Just over 4 out of 10 people (40%) develop some kind of complication with this type of surgery. Complications after bile duct surgery can be very serious. They are becoming less common as surgeons get better at deciding who is likely to make a good recovery. But even so, some people who have the most major surgery for bile duct cancer may die as a result of complications after their operation.

Discussing the risks with your surgeon will help you to decide about whether to have surgery or not. Problems are less likely if you go to a specialist centre where surgeons tend to do these operations more often.

The most common complications are:

This can happen when some internal stitching has come apart or broken down. It can cause a collection of bile or digestive juices. Japanese researchers looked at people who had surgery between 1980 and 1997. They found that this was the most common complication of bile duct surgery and happened in 1 in 5 people (20%).

A fistula literally means an opening. An abnormal connection or path develops between two organs or vessels, such as between the bile ducts and the abdomen or the pancreas and abdomen. When it happens after bile duct surgery, bile or digestive juices from the pancreas can leak into the surrounding tissues, which is very painful.

If you get a fistula, your doctor will put in a tube to drain it. You will need medicines to control inflammation. The tube will stay in until the fistula dries up. The fistula then heals on its own. Sometimes, the surgeon has to operate again to repair the leak.

Some people develop liver failure after surgery. The risk is higher if you have had liver problems before. So before you have surgery, you will have tests to check how well your liver is working and to check for other liver conditions such as cirrhosis.

Internal infections can develop if there is a build up of fluid or blood after your surgery. If you develop an internal infection, your nurse will give you antibiotics through your drip. Your doctor will drain abscesses or any fluid that has collected internally. They put in a needle to suck out the fluid. Or you have a drainage tube put in. Your doctor will use X-ray or ultrasound to make sure the needle or tube is in the right place.

You may have bleeding straight after your operation if a blood vessel is not tied off completely. You can also have bleeding if your blood is not clotting properly. Bleeding in the few days following surgery can happen because of infection. The treatment you need depends on what is causing the bleeding.

Chest infections are a common complication of many operations. Infections happen when you can’t move around as much as usual. The physiotherapists and nurses will help you to get up and move around as soon as possible to help reduce the chance of a chest infection.

Chest infection can also occur if you can’t breathe deeply enough after your surgery. Phlegm (pronounced flem) that you would normally cough up stays in your lungs and can become infected. You can help to prevent chest infections by doing deep breathing exercises.

Below is a short video showing breathing and circulation exercises after surgery. Click on the arrow to watch it.

You will have had heart tests before your surgery to make sure your heart is able to cope with the operation. But bile duct operations can increase the strain on your heart. Some people develop heart problems after surgery that they did not have before.

Last reviewed: 
20 Jan 2015
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