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Types

The medical name for bile duct cancer is cholangiocarcinoma. Find out about the different types. 

Your cancer type depends on:

  • the type of cell that the cancer starts in
  • which part of the bile duct is affected

Cells of the bile duct

The type of bile duct cancer you have tells you the type of cell that the cancer started in. Knowing this helps your doctor decide which treatment you need.

Most cancers of the bile duct start in the cells that line the bile ducts. These are called epithelial cells. This type of cancer is called an adenocarcinoma (add-en-oh-car-sin-oh-ma). 

There are a number of other types of bile duct cancer that develop from other types of cells within the bile duct. These types of bile duct cancer are extremely rare but include:

  • squamous cell carcinoma
  • sarcoma
  • lymphoma

Where the cancer starts

Your type of bile duct cancer also depends on which part of the bile duct the cancer starts in. There are 2 main types:

  • cancers that start in the bile duct outside the liver (extrahepatic bile duct cancers)
  • cancers that start in the bile ducts inside the liver (intrahepatic bile duct cancers)

Extrahepatic bile duct cancers

Extrahepatic bile duct cancers start in the bile ducts outside the liver. They can be divided into two types depending on the area they develop in:

Perihilar region bile duct cancers

These are cancers that develop just outside the liver, where the left and right hepatic ducts join together. They are also called Klatskin tumours or hilar cancers. These are the most common type of bile duct cancer. Around 6 out of 10 bile duct cancers (60%) start in the perihilar region.

Diagram showing the position of the perihilar bile ducts

Distal region bile duct cancers

These are cancers that start in the bile ducts below the perihilar region near the bowel. Around 2 in 10 bile duct cancers (20%) start in the distal region. Before surgery it may be difficult for doctors to be certain whether the cancer is in the bile duct or the pancreas.

Diagram showing the position of the distal bile ducts

Intrahepatic bile duct cancers

Intrahepatic bile duct cancers start inside the liver. There are a number of small bile ducts that join together inside the liver to form the left and right hepatic ducts. Around 2 in 10 bile duct cancers (20%) start in the intrahepatic bile ducts. 

Diagram showing the position of the intraheptic bile ducts

This type of bile duct cancer is sometimes confused with cancers called hepatocellular cancers, which start in liver cells.

Non cancerous growths in the bile duct

Non cancerous (benign) tumours can also grow in the bile duct. They include bile duct adenoma and hamartomas.

Last reviewed: 
27 Jan 2015
  • Guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of cholangiocarcinoma: an update.
    S Khan and others 
    Gut. 2012 December, Volume 61, Issue 12, Pages 1657-69

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