Risks and causes of bile duct cancer | Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter

Risks and causes of bile duct cancer

Landing page cancer type image

This page tells you about the risks and causes of bile duct cancer. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Bile duct cancer risks and causes

Bile duct cancer is rare. The medical term for this type of cancer is cholangiocarcinoma (pronounced kol-an-gee-oh-car-sin-oh-ma).

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is a risk factor. We don’t know what causes most bile duct cancers but there are some factors that may increase your risk.

Risk factors for bile duct cancer include getting older and conditions that cause long term (chronic) inflammation of the bile ducts.

Other factors that may increase the risk of bile duct cancer include

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Liver cirrhosis

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the about bile duct cancer section.

 

 

How common bile duct cancer is

In Great Britain about 1,600 people are diagnosed each year with intrahepatic bile duct cancer. Around 400 people are diagnosed with extrahepatic bile duct cancer. (Numbers for Northern Ireland are not available.)

The number of people getting bile duct cancer has slowly increased in the last few years. It is more common in men than women. We don’t know what causes it but there are several factors that can increase your risk.

 

What a risk factor is

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is a risk factor. Different cancers have different risk factors. Even if you have more than one risk factor, it doesn’t mean you will definitely get cancer.

 

Age

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. Remember, the risk is still small because this is a rare cancer.

Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) is a type of inflammation of the bile ducts. It is a rare condition and we don't know what causes it. People who have this condition have an increased risk of developing cancer of the bile duct. Between 1 and 2 out of 10 people with PSC will go on to develop bile duct cancer.

 

Ulcerative colitis

Doctors noticed many years ago that people who have ulcerative colitis had a slightly increased risk of developing cancer of the bile duct. Around 1 in 200 people with ulcerative colitis develop it. Up to 1 in 10 people with ulcerative colitis affecting the whole large bowel also have primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). Doctors now think it is more likely that the increased bile duct cancer risk is due to PSC rather than ulcerative colitis.

 

Choledochal cysts

Choledochal cysts (pronounced kol-eh-doke-al sist) are very rare. You have them from birth. Most people born with choledochal cysts develop symptoms in early childhood. But some people do not develop any symptoms until adulthood.

Choledochal cysts are sacs that connect to the bile duct and fill up with bile. They grow slowly and can end up holding up to 2 litres of bile. The cells that line the sacs can be abnormal and occasionally show pre cancerous changes. If the cysts are not removed, up to 2 in 10 people (20%) will go on to develop bile duct cancer.


Caroli’s disease is a similar condition to choledochal cysts. It is a very rare condition you are born with. It makes the bile ducts in the liver get wider (dilate). This can increase your risk of developing cancer in the bile ducts in the liver.

 

Liver flukes

Liver flukes are parasitic worms that invade the bile ducts and increase the risk of bile duct cancer. They are not usually a cause of bile duct cancer in the UK. But flukes are a major problem in Asia where bile duct cancer is much more common. People get liver flukes through eating food that contains them.

 

Bile duct stones

Stones in the bile ducts can irritate the duct lining and cause inflammation. This can increase your risk of bile duct cancer. But the increase in risk is small.

Stones usually develop after infection or because of the slow movement of bile through the ducts. They tend to develop in the common or hepatic bile ducts.

 

A medical dye called thorotrast

Thorotrast (thorium dioxide) is a contrast dye that was used in the 1950’s and 60’s to make X-ray pictures clearer. Exposure to thorotrast increases your risk of developing bile duct cancer. It is no longer used.

 

Other factors

There are a number of other factors that may be risk factors for bile duct cancer but we need more research to be sure. They include

  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Hepatitis C infection
  • HIV infection
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Non cancerous (benign) growths in the bile duct called bile duct adenomas
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking tobacco
Rate this page:
Submit rating

 

Rated 4 out of 5 based on 12 votes
Rate this page
Rate this page for no comments box
Please enter feedback to continue submitting
Send feedback
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team

No Error

Updated: 27 January 2015