Skip to Content
Home > Wellness Resources > Health Library > Extrahepatic Bile Duct Cancer Treatment (PDQ®): Treatment - Health Professional Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Incidence and Mortality
Cancer arising in the extrahepatic bile duct is an uncommon disease, and is curable by surgery in fewer than 10% of all cases.
Prognosis depends in part on the tumor's anatomic location, which affects its resectability. Total resection is possible in 25% to 30% of lesions that originate in the distal bile duct, a resectability rate that is clearly better than for lesions that occur in more proximal sites.
Anatomy of the extrahepatic bile duct. The extrahepatic bile duct is made up of the common hepatic duct and the common bile duct.
Bile duct cancer may occur more frequently in patients with a history of primary sclerosing cholangitis, chronic ulcerative colitis, choledochal cysts, or infections with the fluke, Clonorchis sinensis.
The most common symptoms caused by bile duct cancer include:
In most patients, the tumor cannot be completely removed by surgery and is incurable. Palliative resections or other palliative measures such as radiation therapy (e.g., brachytherapy or external-beam radiation therapy) or stenting procedures may maintain adequate biliary drainage and allow for improved survival. Many bile duct cancers are multifocal. Perineural invasion has a negative impact on survival.
The term, cholangiocarcinoma, is sometimes used to refer to any primary cancer of the biliary system; however, its use is often restricted to intrahepatic tumors and, therefore, it is not included in this summary. Adenocarcinomas are the most common type of extrahepatic bile duct cancers. The histologic types are listed below:[1,2]
Malignant mesenchymal tumors, although rare, include the following:
From a clinical and practical point of view, extrahepatic bile duct cancers can be considered to be localized (resectable) or unresectable. This has obvious prognostic importance.
Localized extrahepatic bile duct cancer
Patients with localized extrahepatic bile duct cancer have cancer that can be completely removed by the surgeon. These patients represent a very small minority of cases of bile duct cancer and usually are those with a lesion of the distal common bile duct where 5-year survival rate of 25% may be achieved. Extended resections of hepatic duct bifurcation tumors (Klatskin tumors, also known as hilar tumors) to include adjacent liver, either by lobectomy or removal of portions of segments 4 and 5 of the liver, may be performed. There has been no randomized trial of adjuvant therapy for patients with localized disease. Radiation therapy (external-beam radiation with or without brachytherapy), however, has been reported to improve local control.[1,2][Level of evidence: 3iiiDiii]
Klatskin tumor. A tumor that forms in the common hepatic duct, the area where the right and left hepatic duct meet.
Unresectable extrahepatic bile duct cancer
Patients with unresectable extrahepatic bile duct cancer have cancer that cannot be completely removed by the surgeon. These patients represent the majority of patients with bile duct cancer. Often the cancer invades directly into the portal vein, the adjacent liver or along the common bile duct, and to adjacent lymph nodes. Spread to distant parts of the body is uncommon but intra-abdominal metastases, particularly peritoneal metastases, do occur. At this stage, patient management is directed at palliation.
The TNM staging system should be used when staging the disease of a patient with extrahepatic bile duct cancer. Most cancers are staged following surgery and pathologic examination of the resected specimen. Evaluation of the extent of disease at laparotomy is most important for staging.
Staging depends on imaging, which often defines the limits of the tumor, and surgical exploration with pathologic examination of the resected specimen. In many cases, it may be difficult to completely resect the primary tumor.
Definitions of TNM
The American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) has designated staging by TNM classification to define extrahepatic bile duct cancer.[3,4] Stages defined by TNM classification apply to all primary carcinomas arising in the extrahepatic bile duct or in the cystic duct and do not apply to intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas, sarcomas, or carcinoid tumors.[3,4]
Tables 1, 2, 3, and 4 pertain to the perihilar bile duct group.
Tables 5, 6, 7, and 8 pertain to the distal bile duct group.
In a minority of cases, proximal bile duct cancer can be completely resected. Cures are not often achieved in these patients, in contrast to patients with tumors arising in the distal bile duct, for whom a 5-year survival may be achieved in as many as 25% of patients.
Standard treatment options:
In jaundiced patients, percutaneous transhepatic catheter drainage or endoscopic placement of a stent for relief of biliary obstruction should be considered before surgery, particularly if jaundice is severe or an element of azotemia is present. An understanding of both the normal and varied vascular and ductal anatomy of the porta hepatis has increased the number of hepatic duct bifurcation tumors (Klatskin tumors) that can be resected.[1,2,3]
Current Clinical Trials
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with localized extrahepatic bile duct cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.
Patients with unresectable extrahepatic bile duct cancer have cancer that cannot be completely removed by the surgeon. These patients represent the majority of cases of bile duct cancer. Often a proximal bile duct cancer invades directly into the adjacent liver or into the hepatic artery or portal vein. Portal hypertension may result. Spread to distant parts of the body is uncommon, though transperitoneal and hematogenous hepatic metastases do occur with bile duct cancers of all sites. Invasion along the biliary tree and into the liver is common. Moreover, the majority of patients who undergo resection will develop recurrent disease within the hepatobiliary system or less frequently at distant sites.
Patients with unresectable, recurrent, or metastatic extrahepatic bile duct cancer should be considered for inclusion in clinical trials whenever possible. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
Palliative radiation therapy after biliary bypass or intubation may be beneficial, and patients may be candidates for inclusion in clinical trials that explore ways to improve the effects of radiation therapy with various radiation sensitizers, such as hyperthermia, radiosensitizer drugs, or cytotoxic chemotherapeutic agents. If a percutaneous catheter has been placed, it can be used as a conduit for placement of sources for brachytherapy.[3,4] Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.
A randomized, phase III study of up to 6 months of gemcitabine versus gemcitabine and cisplatin in 410 patients with unresectable, recurrent, or metastatic biliary tract carcinoma demonstrated an improvement in median overall survival (OS) among patients treated with combination therapy (11.7 months vs. 8.1 months; HR, 0.64; (95% confidence interval, 0.52–0.80); P < .001.[Level of evidence: 1iiA] A similar median OS benefit was demonstrated in all subgroups, including 73 patients with extrahepatic bile duct cancer and 57 patients with hilar tumors. Grade 3 and 4 toxicities occurred with similar frequency in both study arms, with the exception of increased hematologic toxicity in patients randomly assigned to gemcitabine-cisplatin and increased hepatotoxicity in patients randomly assigned to single-agent gemcitabine.
Other drugs and drug combinations await evaluation in randomized trials.
Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with unresectable extrahepatic bile duct cancer, recurrent extrahepatic bile duct cancer and metastatic extrahepatic bile duct cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
General Information About Extrahepatic Bile Duct Cancer
Editorial changes were made to this section.
This summary is written and maintained by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of NCI. The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or NIH. More information about summary policies and the role of the PDQ Editorial Boards in maintaining the PDQ summaries can be found on the About This PDQ Summary and PDQ NCI's Comprehensive Cancer Database pages.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of extrahepatic bile duct cancer. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions.
Reviewers and Updates
This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board, which is editorially independent of the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The summary reflects an independent review of the literature and does not represent a policy statement of NCI or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Board members review recently published articles each month to determine whether an article should:
Changes to the summaries are made through a consensus process in which Board members evaluate the strength of the evidence in the published articles and determine how the article should be included in the summary.
The lead reviewers for Extrahepatic Bile Duct Cancer Treatment are:
Any comments or questions about the summary content should be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. Do not contact the individual Board Members with questions or comments about the summaries. Board members will not respond to individual inquiries.
Levels of Evidence
Some of the reference citations in this summary are accompanied by a level-of-evidence designation. These designations are intended to help readers assess the strength of the evidence supporting the use of specific interventions or approaches. The PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board uses a formal evidence ranking system in developing its level-of-evidence designations.
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. Although the content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text, it cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless it is presented in its entirety and is regularly updated. However, an author would be permitted to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks succinctly: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The preferred citation for this PDQ summary is:
National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Extrahepatic Bile Duct Cancer Treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/bileduct/HealthProfessional. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in this summary, along with many other cancer-related images, is available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
Based on the strength of the available evidence, treatment options may be described as either "standard" or "under clinical evaluation." These classifications should not be used as a basis for insurance reimbursement determinations. More information on insurance coverage is available on Cancer.gov on the Coping with Cancer: Financial, Insurance, and Legal Information page.
More information about contacting us or receiving help with the Cancer.gov Web site can be found on our Contact Us for Help page. Questions can also be submitted to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
The NCI's LiveHelp® online chat service provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.
Write to us
For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:
Search the NCI Web site
The NCI Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. For a quick search, use the search box in the upper right corner of each Web page. The results for a wide range of search terms will include a list of "Best Bets," editorially chosen Web pages that are most closely related to the search term entered.
There are also many other places to get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Hospitals in your area may have information about local and regional agencies that have information on finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems related to cancer treatment.
The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2014-03-13
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Learn how to prevent heart disease and maintain a healthy heart.
Tips, Videos & More »