Chemotherapy for bile duct cancer | Cancer Research UK
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Chemotherapy for bile duct cancer

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This page tells you about chemotherapy for bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma). You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what’s on this page

Chemotherapy for bile duct cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. You have the drugs into a vein (intravenously), or as tablets or capsules that you swallow. Chemotherapy on its own won’t cure your cancer. Researchers are looking into whether chemotherapy may lower the risk of the cancer coming back after surgery. At the moment there is not enough evidence to say that chemotherapy helps after surgery.

You may have chemotherapy with radiotherapy. Doctors call this chemoradiation. Some chemotherapy drugs can make cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy, and so help it to work.

If you have advanced cancer and can’t have surgery you may have chemotherapy to shrink your cancer. Shrinking the cancer may relieve symptoms for a while for some people.

Chemotherapy has side effects. The side effects you get depend on which drugs you have, the amount of each drug, and how you react to the drug.

Common side effects include

  • A drop in the number of blood cells causing an increased risk of infection, bruising or bleeding, and tiredness and breathlessness
  • Feeling sick
  • Diarrhoea
  • Hair loss or thinning
  • A sore mouth and mouth ulcers
  • Feeling tired and run down

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

 

 

Chemotherapy for bile duct cancer

Chemotherapy uses anti cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy on its own won’t cure your cancer but you may have it to

  • Lower the risk of your cancer coming back after surgery, as part of a clinical trial
  • Try to shrink your cancer and relieve your symptoms

Some people have chemotherapy with radiotherapy. Doctors call this chemoradiation. Some chemotherapy drugs can make cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy and so help it to work.

 

Chemotherapy after surgery

Research has looked at combining chemotherapy with radiotherapy after surgery for some types of bile duct cancer. This combined treatment may help to lower the risk of the cancer coming back, or delay it. Your specialist may suggest this if there are any signs of cancer cells having been left behind after your surgery. There is research looking at chemotherapy on its own after surgery, but we don't yet have enough evidence to say that it helps to improve survival.

We need more research to find out how best to use chemotherapy and radiotherapy to lower the risk of bile duct cancer coming back after surgery.

 

Chemotherapy to relieve symptoms

If you can’t have surgery to remove your cancer, your doctor may suggest you have chemotherapy. The chemotherapy won’t cure your cancer but it may shrink it and help to relieve symptoms. Chemotherapy may help to slow down the growth of the cancer for a while. But this treatment doesn't help everyone with bile duct cancer. Some people will feel better. And some people may live longer. But some people won't get much benefit from the treatment.

You need to consider whether the trips to hospital for chemotherapy and the side effects are worth the possible benefit for you. You can discuss this with your specialist. No one can know exactly how you will be affected until you have the treatment. If you want to, you can start chemotherapy and see how it goes. Remember that you can always stop treatment if the side effects are too much for you.

A phase 3 trial compared gemcitabine on its own and gemcitabine with cisplatin. It found that the 2 drug combination helped people to live 3 months longer than people having gemcitabine alone. The researchers recommend that the combination treatment should now be standard treatment for people with advanced bile duct cancer.

Below is a video explaining this trial and the results.

Your doctor may ask you to take part in a clinical trial testing chemotherapy. This is because they are testing new drugs and new combinations of current drugs all the time. Trials are an important way to find out which treatments work best. You can find out more about ongoing trials into chemotherapy for bile duct cancer on our clinical trials database.

 

The drugs you may have

You may have one drug or a combination of drugs to treat bile duct cancer. There is a list below of the drugs you may have. The links take you to pages in our cancer drugs section that have information about the side effects of each drug. You may have

Your doctor or specialist nurse will talk through the details of the treatment with you. You have most of these drugs through a drip into a vein in your arm. Capecitabine is a tablet you take daily.

There is general information about chemotherapy side effects below.

 

General side effects of chemotherapy

Drugs affect people in different ways. Not everyone will have the same side effects with the same drug. Some people have very few side effects and others have more. It is not possible to tell exactly how a drug will affect you until you have it.

Some side effects are quite common with many chemotherapy drugs and these are listed below. The links take you to our cancer drugs side effects section, where there is detailed information about each side effect and how to deal with it. Common side effects include

You will have regular blood tests to make sure the number of blood cells you have is not too low. If you are low on white blood cells, you are more likely to pick up infections. If you get an infection, you will need antibiotics. If you are low on red blood cells, you have anaemia, with tiredness and breathlessness. You may need to have a blood transfusion.

Remember to contact your doctor or chemotherapy nurse straight away if you think you have an infection. If you have a temperature of 38°C or higher, let the hospital know straight away.

 

More about chemotherapy

For more information look at our main chemotherapy section. It explains the treatment in more detail including

If you would like more information about chemotherapy, contact our cancer information nurses. They would be happy to help.

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Updated: 22 January 2015