Bile Duct Cancer (Cholangiocarcinoma): Symptoms and Signs

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about body changes and other things that can signal a problem that may need medical care. To see other pages, use the menu.

People with bile duct cancer may experience the following symptoms or signs, usually because the tumor is blocking the bile duct. Sometimes, people with bile duct cancer do not have any of these changes. Or, the cause of a symptom may be another medical condition that is not cancer.

Jaundice

When the bile duct is blocked, the liver cannot excrete bile. This makes bile back up into the bloodstream and can cause jaundice. However, the blockage may not be caused by cancer. A gallstone or scar tissue can also block the bile duct.

Jaundice is a common symptom of bile duct cancer. Jaundice causes the skin and the whites of the eyes to turn yellow. It is caused by high levels of bilirubin in the blood.

Bilirubin is dark yellow, and bile contains bilirubin. Bilirubin can cause the skin and whites of the eyes to turn yellow if there are higher levels of it in the bloodstream. It can also make a person’s urine a dark color and make bowel movements pale.

It is important to note that jaundice is a common symptom for many conditions. Your doctor may need to do several diagnostic tests to find the exact cause of the jaundice. (See the Diagnosis section for a complete list.) Many diseases associated with jaundice are not serious or life threatening, and bile duct cancer is 1 of the less common causes.

Other symptoms of bile duct cancer

  • Itching, caused by a buildup of bile salts and bilirubin in the body that collects in the skin

  • Weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fever

  • Abdominal pain. Early bile duct cancer usually does not cause pain, but a person may experience pain if the cancer is large or has spread.

If you are concerned about any changes you experience, please talk with your doctor. Your doctor will ask how long and how often you’ve been experiencing the symptom(s), in addition to other questions. This is to help find out the cause of the problem, called a diagnosis.

If cancer is diagnosed, relieving symptoms remains an important part of cancer care and treatment. This may also be called symptom management, palliative care, or supportive care. Be sure to talk with your health care team about symptoms you experience, including any new symptoms or a change in symptoms.

The next section in this guide is Diagnosis. It explains what tests may be needed to learn more about the cause of the symptoms. Or, use the menu to choose another section to continue reading this guide.