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Bile duct cancer symptoms

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 3, 2022.

Bile duct cancer symptoms typically do not appear in the early stages of the disease. The bile ducts are thin tubes that connect the liver to the small intestine and remove bile from the liver and gallbladder. The ducts are located deep inside the body, so early tumors cannot be easily detected during routine physical exams, which is largely why this cancer type is seldom detected at an early stage.

Common symptoms of bile duct cancer

Because bile duct tumors may block the flow of bile and bilirubin from the liver or gallbladder, the earliest and most common symptoms of bile duct cancer are related to abnormal liver functions

These include:

  • Jaundice: Bile has a greenish-yellow chemical known as bilirubin. Jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes, occurs when the liver can’t remove bile properly and it backs up in your bloodstream. While jaundice is the most common symptom of bile duct cancer, being jaundiced does not necessarily mean you have bile duct cancer. It also could be caused by hepatitis, gallstones or another less serious condition. See your doctor to determine which steps you should take.
  • Changes in stool color: Bilirubin also helps make your stools brown. When cancer blocks the release of bile and pancreatic juices and the intestines can’t get enough bilirubin, your stool may look lighter than normal. Cancer may also make it difficult for the body to digest fatty foods, and undigested fat also may make stools appear lighter or paler than you’re used to seeing.
  • Changes in urine color: Buildup of bilirubin in the blood may make urine a darker yellow color.

Other bile duct cancer symptoms

Other bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma) symptoms may include:

  • Itching: This may occur when the excess bilirubin in the blood reaches the skin.
  • Enlarged abdominal mass/bloated feeling: This happens due to the pressure of the tumor on nearby organs.
  • Abdominal pain: This symptom of bile duct cancer usually appears in the advanced stages of the disease.
  • Nausea and/or fever: A side effect of abnormal liver function or the buildup of bilirubin, nausea and/or fever may also result from an infection (cholangitis) caused by bile duct blockage.
  • Decreased appetite or weight loss: Bile duct cancer may affect your appetite, causing unintended weight loss.

Next topic: What are the types of bile duct cancer?

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