Bile duct cancer occurs when cancerous cells form in the bile ducts. The prognosis for bile duct cancer is typically unfavorable because many people receive a diagnosis in the later stages of the disease. However, a person’s prognosis depends on several factors, including their body’s response to treatment.

Cancer of the bile ducts, also known as cholangiocarcinoma, is rare. According to the American Cancer Society, around 8,000 people receive a diagnosis of bile duct cancer each year.

There are two types of bile duct cancer: intrahepatic bile duct cancer and extrahepatic bile duct cancer. Intrahepatic bile duct cancer forms in the bile ducts inside the liver. Extrahepatic bile duct cancer forms in the bile ducts outside the liver.

Bile duct cancer can occur at any age. However, it is more likely to develop in older people, with the average age of diagnosis being around 70 years old.

The prognosis, also called the outlook, for people with bile duct cancer depends on its location and how advanced it is.

In this article, we examine the outlook of bile duct cancer. We look at factors that may affect outlook, outlook according to cancer stage, and FAQs relating to the disease.

an older lady is talking to a hospital receptionistShare on Pinterest
Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Many factors affect survival rates among people with bile duct cancer. A person’s outlook can depend on factors such as:

  • where the cancer is growing
  • whether they can have surgery to remove it
  • their general health and fitness
  • how their body responds to treatment
  • newer treatment options

The outlook for bile duct cancer also depends on whether a tumor has remained localized or has spread to other locations.

The outlook for bile duct cancer is typically unfavorable. This is because the disease is often in the advanced stages when a person receives a diagnosis.

The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database tracks 5-year relative survival rates for bile duct cancer in the United States. It groups them according to the spread of cancer, classified as follows:

  • Localized: There is no spread of cancer outside the bile ducts.
  • Regional: Cancer has spread from the bile ducts to nearby structures or lymph nodes.
  • Distant: Cancer has spread to distant body parts, such as the lungs.

These groupings differ from the American Joint Committee on Cancer tumor, node, and metastasis stages that describe cancer by tumor size, spread to lymph nodes, and spread to other parts of the body, progressing in severity from stages 0–4.

Relative survival rates

A relative survival rate compares individuals with the same type and stage of cancer with people in the general population. For example, the 5-year relative survival rate for localized intrahepatic bile cancer is 24%. This means that people with that cancer are, on average, around 24% as likely as those without that type of cancer to live for at least 5 years after diagnosis.

Below are the survival rates for each type and stage of bile duct cancer. Experts based these rates on individuals with a bile duct cancer diagnosis between 2011–2017.

The 5-year relative survival rates for intrahepatic bile duct cancer are as follows:

  • localized: 24%
  • regional: 9%
  • distant: 2%
  • all stages combined: 9%

The 5-year relative survival rates for extrahepatic bile duct cancer are as follows:

  • localized: 17%
  • regional: 16%
  • distant: 2%
  • all stages combined: 10%

It is important to note that these figures do not take all factors into account. Experts group survival rates based on the spread of cancer. However, other factors, such as a person’s age and their body’s response to treatment, can affect outlook.

People may also have a better outlook than the data suggest. Researchers are continually developing and testing newer, more effective treatments that may not have been available when SEER collected the survival rate data.

Experts base survival rates on the outcomes of many people with a specific cancer. However, they cannot predict an individual’s disease course. Healthcare professionals determine each person’s outlook based on individual circumstances.

Bile duct cancer is an aggressive cancer that can develop, grow, and spread quickly. Certain factors or conditions may increase a person’s risk of developing bile duct cancer and its rate of progression, including:

Below are some common questions and answers on bile duct cancer:

What happens in the final stage of bile duct cancer?

Final stage bile duct cancer, also called stage 4, occurs when cancer spreads to other areas of the body, such as the liver, lungs, and tissue lining the wall of the abdomen.

Symptoms of advanced bile duct cancer vary depending on where the cancer has spread to in the body. They may include:

When cancer spreads too far to remove with surgery, healthcare professionals may suggest the use of palliative treatments — such as pain relief and antiemetic medications — to alleviate symptoms and help a person feel more comfortable.

Generally, palliative care helps manage symptoms. It does not cure cancer.

Is cancer in the bile duct curable?

Doctors can treat and cure bile duct cancer in the early stages of the disease.

Doctors generally divide bile duct cancer into resectable and unresectable cancers. Resectable cancers are those that doctors can remove with surgery, and unresectable cancers are those that doctors cannot entirely remove with surgery. Unresectable cancers have typically spread too far or may be difficult to access with surgery.

When doctors diagnose bile duct cancer, the condition has typically reached an unresectable state.

Can chemotherapy help?

Some people may benefit from chemotherapy. However, experts are still unsure about its usefulness for treating bile duct cancer.

Bile duct cancer is rare and aggressive. Although the disease typically has an unfavorable outlook, an individual’s outlook depends on various factors, such as age, overall health, and their body’s response to treatment.

The 5-year relative survival rates range between 2–24% for bile duct cancers that start within the liver, and 2–17% for bile duct cancers that start outside the liver. People with localized bile duct cancer that has not spread within the body often have a more favorable outlook.

In the early stages of bile duct cancer, doctors can sometimes remove all of the cancer with surgery. However, if the cancer spreads, it becomes more complex to treat.

Most people receive a bile duct diagnosis in the later stages of the disease. In this case, healthcare professionals may offer them palliative care to alleviate their symptoms.

Experts continue to develop new cancer treatments, so the outlook for people with bile duct cancer may change as newer treatments become available.