abdomen MRI image showing on medical monitor

Spotlight on Rare Cancers: Bile Duct and Gallbladder Cancers

Spotlight on Rare Cancers: Bile Duct and Gallbladder Cancers

Bile duct and gallbladder cancers are uncommon, affecting around 8,000 and 12,130 people every year respectively. But while both illnesses are rare, they can be quite dangerous. Both cancers develop in organs deep inside the body, making tumors difficult to detect in an exam, and by the time patients experience visible symptoms, the diseases are usually in the later stages.

Despite their rarity, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of bile duct and gallbladder cancer, as well as the populations they impact, so you can assess your risk.

Bile Duct Cancer

Bile is a greenish-yellow fluid produced in the liver. The main purpose of bile is to break down fats, turning them into fatty acids that can be absorbed by the gut. Bile also helps remove toxins and waste from the body. Bile ducts are thin tubes that carry bile out of the liver to the gallbladder or small intestine.

Bile duct cancer can develop in different areas throughout the bile duct system. There are three types of bile duct cancer to be aware of:

  • Intrahepatic bile duct cancer: Cancer that starts in the bile ducts in the liver
  • Perihilar or hilar bile duct cancer: Cancer occurring where the right and left bile ducts exit the liver
  • Distal bile duct cancer: Cancer that develops farther down the bile ducts near the small intestine 

What are the symptoms of bile duct cancer?

Jaundice, which causes the skin and eyes to turn yellow, is the most common symptom of bile duct cancer. Other possible symptoms include itchy skin, dark urine, abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms are typically a result of blocked bile ducts and, unfortunately, once they appear it’s likely that the cancer is already at a late stage.

What are the risk factors associated with bile duct cancer?

Risk factors include:

Chronic inflammatory illnesses: If you have been diagnosed with chronic conditions that cause inflammation in the bile ducts, your risk of this cancer is higher. Conditions like primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), ulcerative colitis, bile duct stones, choledochal cyst disease, cirrhosis, and hepatitis B or C can all cause bile duct inflammation.

Age: Bile duct cancer is more common in people in their 60s and 70s.

Ethnicity: In the United States, bile duct cancer rates are highest among Hispanic Americans.

Alcohol use: People who suffer liver damage due to excessive drinking are more likely to develop bile duct cancer.

Tobacco use: Smoking might increase your risk of bile duct cancer.

Weight: Being overweight increases your likelihood of getting bile duct stones and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, both of which can lead to bile duct cancer.

Can I do anything to lower my risk of bile duct cancer?

You might be able to reduce your risk of bile duct cancer by maintaining a healthy weight and eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Another way to lower your risk is to keep your liver healthy by limiting alcohol consumption and making sure to get vaccinated against hepatitis B.

Gallbladder Cancer

The gallbladder is a 3 to 4-inch pear-shaped organ beneath the small intestine. Bile is stored in the gallbladder and travels there from the liver via the bile ducts. Most gallbladder cancers are adenocarcinomas, which are cancers found in the glands that line your organs. This includes the organs that comprise the digestive system, like the gallbladder.

What are the symptoms of gallbladder cancer?

Like bile duct cancer, symptoms of gallbladder cancer often don’t reveal themselves until the later stages of the disease. The symptoms of gallbladder cancer are also similar to those of bile duct cancer: jaundice, abdominal pain, loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss. Lumps in the belly might also indicate gallbladder cancer.

What are the risk factors associated with gallbladder cancer?

Risk factors include:

Gender: Women are more likely to develop gallbladder cancer than men.

Weight: Obesity increases your risk of gallstones and gallbladder cancer.

Age: Gallbladder cancer is usually found in people over the age of 65.

Ethnicity: In the U.S., gallbladder cancer rates are highest among Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Latin Americans.

Illnesses causing inflammation of the gallbladder: PSC, gallstones, porcelain gallbladder, gallbladder polyps and choledochal cysts can all increase your risk of gallbladder cancer.

Can I do anything to lower my risk of gallbladder cancer?

As with bile duct cancer, maintaining a healthy weight, prioritizing physical activity, avoiding overindulging in alcohol and eating a healthy diet with nutrient-dense foods might help lower your risk of gallbladder cancer.