Bile duct cancer can cause a buildup of fluid in the lining of the abdomen, called ascites. This can lead to abdominal bloating and discomfort.

Bile ducts are part of the digestive system. They are small tubes that connect the different organs in the abdomen. Bile duct cancer, also known as cholangiocarcinoma, refers to any cancer in the bile ducts.

Some people with bile duct cancer develop ascites. It is more common in the advanced stages of the disease.

Read on to learn more about the link between bile duct cancer and ascites.

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The peritoneum is a membrane that contains the organs in the abdomen. It has two layers.

This membrane produces a liquid, called ascitic fluid, that acts as a lubricant for the organs. Ascites develops when ascitic fluid builds up between the layers.

Ascites may develop because cancer has spread to the peritoneum. The cancer may cause leaks of fluid that can build up in the abdomen. This typically happens during the advanced stages of bile duct cancer.

The most common symptoms of ascites are bloating and swelling in the abdomen. Symptoms of ascites may also include:

  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • indigestion
  • fatigue
  • constipation
  • loss of appetite
  • increased urine output
  • breathlessness

Other symptoms that people with bile duct cancer may experience may include:

  • high body temperature
  • dark colored urine
  • light colored stools
  • itchiness
  • jaundice, which is skin or white in the eyes turning yellow

The speed with which bile duct cancer spreads may vary from person to person. However, doctors consider this type of cancer quite aggressive. It generally has a quick progression and may spread to other organs in a relatively short period.

Certain underlying health conditions may increase the risk and progression of bile duct cancer, including:

  • cirrhosis
  • liver fluke infections
  • chronic pancreatitis
  • primary sclerosing cholangitis
  • stones in the gallbladder or bile ducts
  • viral infections

The outlook for people with bile duct cancer varies depending on the cancer stage. In its later stages, bile duct cancer has a relatively poor outlook. The 5-year survival rate of bile cancer that has spread, or metastasized, is about 2%.

Because ascites is more common in people with advanced bile duct cancer, it is likely associated with a worse outlook.

The 5-year survival rate may also vary depending on whether the cancer has started in a bile duct of the liver or a bile duct outside the liver.

According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates for different types of bile duct cancer are as follows:

Stage5-year survival rate (cancer starting within the liver)5-year survival rate (cancer starting outside the liver)
Distant (metastasized)3%2%

In many cases, people with bile duct cancer do not experience any symptoms, such as ascites, until the cancer reaches its late stage.

If doctors cannot surgically remove the cancer, they may recommend chemotherapy or radiation to try to reduce the tumor size and prevent it from spreading.

Doctors may also recommend receiving periodic ascitic drainages.

During this procedure, doctors can drain the fluid buildup. A draining session can last several hours depending on the amount of fluid doctors need to drain from the person’s abdomen.

People should consider contacting a doctor if they experience symptoms such as:

  • abdominal swelling
  • abdominal pain
  • jaundice
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dark urine
  • light colored stools
  • itchy skin
  • unexplained weight loss

Doctors may recommend undergoing a series of tests to help understand the cause of the symptoms.

If a person experiences any of these symptoms, it does not mean they have bile duct cancer. Other health conditions may be the cause of these symptoms.

People with bile duct cancer may experience ascites, or buildup of fluid in the abdomen. It may happen in the later stages of bile duct cancer when it has spread to other organs of the digestive tract.

The main treatment for bile duct cancer is resection. However, when surgery may not be a suitable option, doctors may recommend treating bile duct cancer with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.