The bile ducts are thin tubes that transport fluid called bile from the liver to the gallbladder to the small intestine to help digest fats. Bile duct cancer is a rare type of tumor that develops in the cells that line the inside of the bile ducts.
Most bile duct cancers fit into a category of cancers called adenocarcinomas. Bile duct adenocarcinoma forms in mucous glands lining the bile ducts. Bile duct cancer is also known as biliary adenocarcinoma or cholangiocarcinoma.
Bile duct cancers are all rare and classified according to their location.
If you are having symptoms related to bile duct cancer, your primary care doctor will ask about your health history, your family's history of cancer and risk factors. To confirm a diagnosis and understand the extent to which the cancer has spread, your doctor may order imaging tests, such as a computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or ultrasound. At Mass General Brigham, we are one of the few centers that also offers positron emission tomography-MRI (PET-MRI).
Other diagnostic tests for bile duct cancer available at Mass General Brigham include:
Mass General Brigham delivers advanced care for patients with bile duct cancer and other gastrointestinal diseases. Our multidisciplinary treatment team includes surgeons, medical and radiation oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, endoscopists, anesthesiologists and gastroenterologists.
You will find all the latest treatments for bile duct cancer at Mass General Brigham. Your care team will meet weekly to share information about your unique cancer and discuss your treatment plan, which may involve one or more of the following options.
Treatment for bile duct cancer often involves surgery, with a precise surgical approach depending on the tumor location. Our surgeons are internationally recognized experts who have years of experience in bile duct cancer surgery and specialize in minimally invasive techniques.
In addition, our team has done pioneering work in identifying genetic mutations that may enable the use of novel therapies for this cancer type. This allows us to take a more aggressive approach to treatment (through chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immune therapy, embolization, and/or external beam radiation) before surgery. Shrinking the tumor up front often facilitates more complete removal of the tumor during the operation.
Mass General Brigham surgeons have perfected other aggressive surgical procedures, including:
Chemotherapy uses drugs (given intravenously or orally) to destroy cancer cells. It may be employed before or after surgery for bile duct cancer.
Targeted therapy is a form of personalized medicine in which a drug is chosen based on the specific genetic mutation or alteration found in your own cells. It may be used before or after surgery. Some of the mutated proteins that are targeted by such therapies include IDH1, FGFR2, BRAF, and HER2.
Immune therapy is a form of (intravenous) medication that takes the brakes off from the immune system to enable it to attack cancer cells. It is used alone or in combination with chemotherapy to treat bile duct cancers, either before or after surgery.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. The goal is to shrink or eliminate cancer cells without damaging healthy surrounding tissue. It may be employed before or after surgery. Radiation oncologists at Mass General Brigham use the most advanced therapies to treat pancreatic cancer, many of which are available at only a select few hospitals.
Proton beam therapy, an advanced form of radiation treatment, uses a high-energy, focused proton beam to target tumors with incredible precision. Compared with the use of X-ray beams, proton beam therapy reduces side effects because more radiation is deposited precisely in the tumor and less radiation is deposited into the surrounding normal tissues. This approach may improve tumor control and the chance of a cure.
Mass General Brigham is home to the only proton therapy site in New England, and our Radiation Oncologists possess unparalleled experience in treating tumors with this approach. In fact, we were the world's first center to harness the power of high-energy protons for medical care.
Interventional radiologists use multiple image-guided techniques to provide minimally invasive cancer treatment. These techniques can be used to help shrink tumors prior to surgery or treat cancers when surgery is not possible.
Meet Mass General Brigham's multidisciplinary team of bile duct cancer specialists.
Members of our faculty conduct research – from basic laboratory science to clinical trial research – to improve our understanding of bile duct cancers. Some recent research highlights include:
Through clinical trials available at Mass General Brigham, you may gain access to new drugs, new combinations of drugs or already approved drugs being studied to treat patients in new ways. Ongoing trials are focusing on innovations such as:
Each year, thousands of patients from more than 140 countries travel to Mass General Brigham for medical care, second opinions and treatments unavailable anywhere else in the world.
Mass General Brigham is experienced in caring for bile duct cancer patients who are traveling great distances to our hospitals in Boston. Your cancer team here and our international patient services team will help you prepare for and plan the appropriate amount of time to stay in Boston for your appointments, treatments and any recovery time. During this recovery time in Boston or back home in your country, our clinical team will monitor your well-being and progressions to continuously optimize your treatment plan and symptoms.
Many of our international patients have questions about everything from travel and lodging to scheduling appointments. Our international patient services team is here to help. We look forward to making your Mass General Brigham experience as healing and stress-free as possible.