Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Diagnosis and treatment

How is bile duct cancer diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures for bile duct cancer may include the following:

  • Ultrasound (also called sonography) – a diagnostic imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the internal organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs of the abdomen such as the liver, spleen and kidneys, and to assess blood flow through various vessels.
  • Computed tomography scan (CT or CAT scan) – a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images (often called slices), both horizontally and vertically, of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays. 
  • Cholangiography – X-ray examination of the bile ducts using an intravenous (IV) dye (contrast). 
  • Biopsy – a procedure in which tissue samples are removed (with a needle or during surgery) from the body for examination under a microscope.

Treatment for bile duct cancer

Specific treatment for bile duct cancer will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health and medical history.
  • Extent of the disease. 
  • Cause of the disease. 
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies. 
  • Expectations for the course of the disease. 
  •  Your opinion or preference.

Treatment options include:

  • Surgery – may be necessary to remove cancerous tissue, as well as nearby noncancerous tissue.
  • External radiation (external beam therapy) – a treatment therapy that precisely sends high levels of radiation directly to the cancer cells. The machine is controlled by the radiation therapist. Since radiation is used to kill cancer cells and to shrink tumors, special shields may be used to protect the tissue surrounding the treatment area. Radiation treatments are painless and usually last a few minutes. Radiation therapy may be given after surgery, to kill small areas of cancer that may not be seen during surgery, or instead of surgery. Radiation also may be used to ease (palliate) symptoms such as pain, bleeding or blockage.
  • Chemotherapy – the use of anti-cancer drugs to treat cancerous cells. In most cases, chemotherapy works by interfering with the cancer cell’s ability to grow or reproduce. Different groups of drugs work in different ways to fight cancer cells. The oncologist will recommend a treatment plan for each individual.