Biliary Cancer

Biliary cancer, also known as bile duct cancer and gallbladder cancer are generally aggressive cancers. Bile ducts are the tubes that take bile from the liver and pass it through to the small bowel. Bile duct cancer arises from the cells within the bile ducts; both inside and outside the liver.

Gallbladder cancers are commonly identified incidentally when the gallbladder is removed for other reasons, such as for pain related to gallstone disease. Sometimes they present as an abdominal mass found on examination. In the more advanced cases they present in a similar way to bile duct cancer.

Different types of bile duct cancers include:

Klatskin Tumours
This begins where the right hepatic duct joins the left hepatic duct. Approximately 50% of all bile duct cancers are Klatskin tumours.

Intrahepatic Bile Duct Cancers
This begins in the bile ducts in that connect to the liver and is also known as primary liver cancer.

Common Bile Duct Cancers
This begins in the common bile duct which connects to the small bowel and where it meets the pancreatic duct.

Multifocal Bile Duct Cancer
This type of cancer means that there is more than one tumour present and they’re in different areas of the bile ducts.


  • Approximately 965 men and women will be diagnosed with Biliary Cancer in 2019
  • Up to 298 men and women will die from Biliary Cancer in 2019
  • There is only a 20% chance of surviving past 5 years

Data source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: Cancer in Australia 2019


It is not known what causes most bile duct cancers but some risk factors include:

  • Swelling or irritation: people with long term swelling or irritation in the bile ducts are more likely to get cancer.
  • Bowel disease: people that suffer from ulcerative colitis are at a higher risk of developing biliary cancer.
  • Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC): this is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, one in which the body’s own inflammatory cells attack the bile ducts. PSC causes scarring and narrowing of the bile ducts, which block bile from reaching the intestines. Some patients eventually need a liver transplant. In 10-20% of patients bile duct carcinoma develops. Many patients also have another autoimmune disorder, most commonly ulcerative colitis.
  • Congenital abnormalities of the bile ducts: these include choledochal cysts (dilation of the common bile duct).The overall lifetime risk of cholangiocarcinoma in these patients is 10%.
  • Benign tumors of the bile ducts: a major risk factor is biliary papillomatosis, which refers to multiple papillary tumours diffusely involving the bile ducts. These may progress to invasive carcinoma.
  • Hepatobiliary parasitic infection: Clonorchis is acquired when humans eat freshwater fish that harbor the Clonorchis cyst.

Exposure to toxins: exposure to chemical toxins such as asbestos can increase your chances of developing bile duct cancer



Biliary and gallbladder cancer symptoms may include:

  • Jaundice (yellow skin, eyes and dark urine)
  • Itching
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Pain in the right side of the upper abdomen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive fatigue or weakness


There are a number of tests that can be done to diagnose biliary cancer including:

  • Biopsy tissue sample
  • Blood test
  • CT and MRI scan
  • Laparoscopy


Treatment for bile duct and gallbladder cancer may include a combination of the following:

  • Surgery to remove the gallbladder/bile duct, and sometimes part of the liver
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Stent placement. A stent is a tube that allows the bile, which is made by the liver, to drain more easily into the intestine if a tumour is blocking the bile duct.

Surgery provides the only chance for cure in selected cases. Early diagnosis is the key in the appropriate management of gallbladder and bile duct cancer.

Find a specialist

Click here to read our tips on finding the right specialist for you.

Questions to ask your doctor

It can become confusing and overwhelming when speaking to a number of doctors. It helps to write down a list of questions you wish to ask your doctor. Consider the following questions;

  • Do you typically treat patients with my type of cancers?
  • What are the outcomes or complications you have faced with my type of cancer?
  • Is there anything unique about my cancer that makes my prognosis better or worse?
  • What are all my treatment options?
  • How long will I need to receive treatment and how often?
  • How will I know if my treatment is working?
  • What are the side effects of my treatment?
  • Are there any alternative treatment options?
  • How can I prepare for the side effects of my treatment or prevent them?
  • How will treatment affect my daily activities?
  • Will I need to stop working?
  • Are there any clinical trials that are right for me?
  • What other health services would benefit me (for example; dietitian, social worker, physiotherapist) and how can I be proactive with my treatment?

Seeking a second opinion

You can seek a second, third and fourth opinion until you are satisfied and comfortable with the doctor you have chosen. Most doctors will encourage you to seek more than one opinion as they may confirm or suggest modifications to the proposed treatment plan.

It is sometimes difficult and uncomfortable to suggest to your doctor that you would like to seek a second opinion. It is best to be open and honest, suggest that you are satisfied with their decision and you would like to be as thoroughly informed as possible. It is also best to keep your doctor informed during this process as they can make your medical records, test results and x-rays available to the specialist who is giving the second opinion.

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