Symptoms of bile duct cancer

Bile duct cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms in the early stages. When you do have symptoms, they include: 

  • yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
  • weight loss
  • pain in the stomach area
  • changes to the colour of your poo (stools) and wee (urine)
  • itching of the skin
  • feeling generally unwell

There are many other conditions that cause these symptoms. Most of them are much more common than bile duct cancer. 

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms. Although your symptoms are unlikely to be bile duct cancer, it is important to get them checked by a doctor.

About the symptoms

Symptoms of bile duct cancer depend on where the cancer is in the bile ducts.

Cancers that start in the bile ducts outside the liver (extrahepatic bile duct cancer) or that block the drainage of bile Open a glossary item from the liver can cause:

  • yellowing of the skin (jaundice)
  • changes to the colour of your stools and urine
  • itchy skin 

Cancers that start in the bile ducts inside the liver (intrahepatic bile duct cancer) often don’t cause any specific symptoms until they are more advanced. When they do cause symptoms, they can include: 

  • feeling generally unwell
  • unexplained weight loss
  • tummy (abdominal) pain

Yellowing of the skin (jaundice)

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

You can get a high temperature (fever) when you have jaundice. It can be a sign of inflammation or an infection. When your temperature is high you may feel cold and shivery.

Weight loss

Unexplained weight loss is a symptom of bile duct cancer.

Doctors define unintentional weight loss as losing more than 10% of your body weight. This means losing 1 stone for every 10 stones that you weigh.

See your doctor if there is no obvious reason for your weight loss.

Pain in your tummy (abdomen)

Pain in the abdomen is a common symptom of bile duct cancer. The pain is usually on your right hand side, just below your ribs.

It's important to remember that this type of pain can be caused by other less serious conditions, such as gallstones.

Itching

You might have itchy skin if you have jaundice. The increased bile in your bloodstream can cause itching.

Last reviewed: 
20 Sep 2021
Next review due: 
20 Sep 2024
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