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Symptoms of bile duct cancer

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This page has information about the symptoms of bile duct cancer. You can find the following information


A quick guide to what's on this page

Bile duct cancer symptoms

The first symptom most people notice is yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. This is called jaundice. People who are jaundiced often also have very itchy skin. Their urine may be dark and their stools very pale. A tumour blocking the bile duct can cause jaundice. Bile cannot pass into the bowel and instead builds up in the blood and body tissues.

Other symptoms of bile duct cancer include

  • Itchy skin
  • Pain in the tummy (abdomen)
  • Loss of appetite
  • A high temperature
  • Weight loss

Remember - bile duct cancer is rare and these symptoms can be caused by something else. But it is still important to tell your doctor if you have any of them.

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About the symptoms of bile duct cancer

Bile duct cancer is also called cholangiocarcinoma (pronounced kol-an-gee-oh-car-sin-oh-ma). Mostly it doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages. Any symptoms that you do have are often quite vague, such as feeling sick and loss of appetite.

Remember - bile duct cancer is rare and these symptoms can be caused by other conditions. If you have any of these symptoms speak to your doctor so they can find out what is causing them.

Visiting the GP

The symptoms vary depending on where the cancer is in the bile ducts. Cancers that start in the liver bile ducts (intrahepatic bile duct cancer) often don’t cause any specific symptoms until they are more advanced.

The symptoms of bile duct cancers include

Jaundice is the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. It is often the first symptom that people notice. When you have jaundice your urine is darker than normal. Your bowel motions may also be lighter in colour. Most people who have jaundice have itchy skin.

Jaundice can happen when a tumour blocks the bile duct and stops the flow of bile into the bowel. So bile ends up in your bloodstream and body tissues instead. The yellowing is from yellow pigments in the bile.

Between 7 and 9 out of every 10 people (70 to 90%) with bile duct cancer outside the liver have jaundice. It is the most common symptom of bile duct cancers in the perihilar and distal areas.

Jaundice is less common with cancers that start in the liver because a tumour there does not completely block the flow of bile.

Around half of those with bile duct cancer lose weight for no apparent reason. This is one of the most common symptoms with intrahepatic bile duct cancer.

Pain in the area of the stomach is a common symptom of bile duct cancer. The pain is usually on your right hand side, just below your ribs. At first it may be a dull ache, and may feel like more of a discomfort than a pain. It is often one of the first symptoms of intrahepatic bile duct cancer. Do remember though that you can have pain like this from less serious conditions, such as gallstones.

You may have a high temperature (fever) when you are jaundiced. It can be a sign of inflammation or an infection in the bile ducts. When your temperature is high you may feel cold and shivery.

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Updated: 13 January 2015