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Man with bile duct cancer symptoms

Bile duct cancer symptoms are not usually apparent in the early stages of the condition, which is also known as cholangiocarcinoma. Additionally, there are currently no screening techniques that are reliable enough to be recommended for routine use in individuals who do not have symptoms. As is true for most types of cancer, cholangiocarcinoma outcomes can be improved with early detection. For these reasons, it is important to learn about the possible signs of bile duct cancer and to report anything unusual to a physician right away.

What are some common symptoms of bile duct cancer?

When bile duct cancer causes symptoms, the underlying reason is usually a bile duct blockage caused by a tumor. The liver produces bile, which contains a greenish-yellow substance called bilirubin. If an obstruction inhibits the release of bile from the liver, bilirubin can back up into the bloodstream and settle in different parts of the body. Some common signs of a bile duct blockage include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) – The signs of excess bilirubin are usually most apparent in the whites of the eyes and the skin.
  • Itching – High levels of bilirubin in the skin can cause the skin to itch.
  • Greasy and light-colored stools – Bilirubin aids in the digestion of fats and naturally darkens the stools. If bilirubin is prevented from reaching the intestines, the stools may be greasier, bulkier and lighter in color than usual.
  • Dark urine – High levels of bilirubin in the blood may be eliminated in the urine, turning it dark in color.
  • Abdominal pain – A bile duct blockage can sometimes cause discomfort, particularly on the right side of the abdomen below the ribs.

While fever, unexplained weight loss, nausea and vomiting are not common symptoms of bile duct cancer, they sometimes occur due to an infection (cholangitis) that results from a bile duct blockage. It’s important to keep in mind that bile duct cancer is relatively rare, and that these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something else, such as gallstones. Also, jaundice is more frequently attributed to hepatitis than cholangiocarcinoma. For any of these symptoms, however, it’s important to consult with an experienced medical professional who can provide an accurate diagnosis and individualized treatment.

How to know if you have jaundice

As mentioned above, one of the most common symptoms of bile duct cancer is jaundice, which is characterized by yellowing of the skin and the eyes (in more severe cases, the whites of the eyes could deepen even further into an orange or brown color). It seems like this yellowing would be easy enough to notice, but if you’ve never experienced jaundice before, you might have a difficult time knowing what to look for.

The yellowing associated with jaundice tends to start at the head and then spread down toward the feet. In some individuals—particularly those with lighter skin—the signs of jaundice will be readily apparent. It will likely be more difficult to notice yellowing in brown or black skin, though, so if you have a darker complexion, you’ll want to pay especially close attention to the whites of your eyes. You could also try gently pressing the skin on your forehead or nose—if you have jaundice, it will be easier to detect the yellowness when you pull your fingers away.

In some instances, a person will experience yellowing in their skin but not their eyes. Jaundice tends to affect both the skin and the eyes—not just one or the other—so yellowing of just the skin would likely point to a different condition, such as excessive consumption of beta carotene.

Other potential causes of jaundice

As noted above, jaundice and the other symptoms associated with bile duct cancer can also result from a number of other conditions, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions. Instead, wait to be diagnosed by a trained medical professional, who will be able to provide you with personalized instructions on what to do next. Jaundice, in particular, can also be caused by:

  • Chronic liver disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Crigler-Najjar syndrome
  • Dubin-Johnson syndrome
  • Gallstones
  • Gilbert syndrome
  • Hepatitis
  • Liver infections
  • Mononucleosis
  • Pregnancy
  • Rotor syndrome
  • Certain medications (for example, acetaminophen, birth control pills, penicillin and steroids)

The team to choose for diagnosis and treatment

Even though the symptoms of bile duct cancer are often caused by other, less serious conditions, it’s still important to obtain an accurate diagnosis from an experienced clinician. For this type of highly specialized expertise, many patients turn to Moffitt Cancer Center. The cancer experts in our Gastrointestinal Oncology Program work together to develop individualized treatment plans for each patient, so if you do receive a diagnosis of bile duct cancer, you can rest assured that you’ll be in the most capable of hands. Plus, as the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center based in Florida, we lead the industry in terms of research, and we’re pleased to offer our patients the chance to participate in promising new treatments for this type of malignancy.

If you’d like to have possible bile duct cancer symptoms evaluated by the cholangiocarcinoma experts at Moffitt, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. Your cancer diagnosis is our top priority, so we’ll be sure to connect you with a cancer expert as soon as possible.