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Bile duct cancer

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Supportive care for extrahepatic bile duct cancer

Supportive careSupportive careTreatment given to improve the quality of life of people who have a serious illness (such as cancer). helps people meet the physical, practical, emotional and spiritual challenges of extrahepatic bile duct cancer. It is an important part of cancer care. There are many programs and services available to help meet the needs and improve the quality of life of people living with cancer and their loved ones, especially after treatment has ended.

Recovering from extrahepatic bile duct cancer and adjusting to life after treatment is different for each person, depending on the extent of the disease, the type of treatment and many other factors. The end of cancer treatment may bring mixed emotions. Even though treatment has ended, there may be other issues to deal with, such as coping with long-term side effects. A person who has been treated for extrahepatic bile duct cancer may have the following concerns.


Pain can occur with extrahepatic bile duct cancer or its treatment. People with extrahepatic bile duct cancer may experience pain because the tumour grows into surrounding nerves and organs, such as the liver, gallbladder, pancreas or small intestine. The tumour can also block the bile duct and prevent bile from draining properly.

The amount of pain often increases as the cancer advances.

Pain may be treated by:

  • external beam radiation therapy and brachytherapy
    • Palliative radiation therapy may be helpful in relieving pain in people with advanced extrahepatic bile duct cancer. It can help to shrink tumours that are pressing on nerves or other organs.
  • palliative surgery or procedures
    • Palliative surgery or procedures are used to relieve pain and restore the flow of bile if a tumour blocks the bile duct. Palliative surgery or procedures may include a biliary bypass or inserting a biliary stent or catheter.
  • pain-relieving medications
    • Pain medications may be needed, especially with advanced extrahepatic bile duct cancer.
  • alcohol injection
    • An alcohol injection may be used to help relieve pain. Alcohol is injected into or around the nerves (nerve block) that carry sensations of pain from the bile duct and abdominal area to the brain. The alcohol helps deaden the nerves and relieve pain.

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Jaundice can occur with extrahepatic bile duct cancer. When a bile duct tumour blocks (obstructs) the bile duct or spreads (metastasizes) to the liver, then bile cannot drain properly. As bile builds up in the blood and the skin, it causes jaundice.

Jaundice results in:

  • yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
  • dark yellow urine
  • severe itching (pruritus)
  • pale-coloured stools

Treatment is aimed at managing the obstruction and relieving the symptoms of jaundice. Surgery or procedures that may be used to relieve an obstruction in the biliary tract include:

  • inserting a small metal or plastic tube (stent) to keep the bile duct open
  • inserting a biliary drainage tube (catheter) to help drain bile
  • doing a biliary bypass to create a route for bile to drain around the blockage

Itching may be relieved by:

  • anti-itch medicines, including oral antihistamines
  • cholestyramine (Questran), a drug that binds with bile salts in the body so they can be excreted
  • topical treatments (creams or lotions that are applied to the skin), including:
    • corticosteroid cream
    • calamine lotion
    • antihistamine cream
  • using mild soap and applying moisturizing lotions after a bath
  • using an oil or oatmeal bath preparation
  • not wearing wool clothing or synthetic fabrics that can irritate the skin
  • wearing loose-fitting clothing
  • keeping the environment humid and cool

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Loss of appetite

Many people with extrahepatic bile duct cancer will have advanced disease when they are diagnosed. As the cancer progresses, people can lose their appetite and their diet and nutrition may be poor. Loss of appetite can cause a person to lose weight. Jaundice can result in changes in taste, which can affect a person's appetite. Nausea and vomiting can also affect appetite.

Eating small amounts of high-calorie foods or fluids, having smaller, more frequent meals and taking nutritional supplements can be helpful. Anti-nausea drugs can be used to control nausea and vomiting. Cold foods may be better tolerated, and using plastic cutlery can help if foods have a metallic taste. When appropriate, the doctor may order medicines to help increase appetite.

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Cholangitis is inflammation of the bile duct. It is can occur when a tumour grows and blocks a biliary stent. Cholangitis can cause fever, chills and other signs of infection. The bile duct has to be cleared and drained, so the blocked stent is often removed and replaced, if possible. Antibiotics may be ordered to treat infection.

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Liver abscess

A liver abscess is a pus-filled area in the liver that causes swelling and inflammation. A liver abscess can occur if the bile ducts become blocked. Fever, chills, constant pain and recurring jaundice may indicate a liver abscess. The doctor may need to drain the abscess and may prescribe antibiotics.

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Liver failure

Liver failure can occur when the bile ducts are blocked. Jaundice, abnormal liver function tests, bleeding or abdominal pain or swelling can indicate liver failure. Doctors may try to relieve the blockage. Supportive measures are used to make the person as comfortable as possible.

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Managing a biliary stent or catheter

People with a biliary stent or catheter need to know the symptoms that may indicate that the stent or catheter has become blocked. These symptoms include changes in stool or urine colour, jaundice, itching and nausea. These should be reported to the doctor.

If a biliary catheter drains the bile into a bag outside the body, the person is taught how to take care of the catheter and the skin around it and how to drain the bag.

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Coping with advanced bile duct cancer

People with advanced extrahepatic bile duct cancer are offered palliative care. This is a special type of care that focuses on making the person as comfortable as possible, relieving symptoms, providing support and improving or maintaining the person's quality of life.

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See a list of questions to ask your doctor about supportive care after treatment.


Stephanie Hermsen Thanks to the incredible progress in retinoblastoma research made possible by Canadian Cancer Society funding, my son won’t have to go through what I did.

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