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Malignant Bile Duct Obstruction

The bile duct carries bile, a liquid that helps with digestion, from the liver to the gallbladder and small intestine. Malignant bile duct obstruction is a condition in which a cancerous tumor blocks the bile ducts.

The most common type of bile duct cancer is called cholangiocarcinoma. Cancerous tumors that form in the bile duct are rare, affecting between 2,000 and 3,000 people a year in the United States. About two-thirds of people who get this type of cancer are over age 65. The most common cancer that obstructs the bile duct is pancreas cancer.

A bile duct blockage can also develop from cancer that starts in nearby organs, such as the pancreas or gallbladder, or that begins elsewhere in the body and spreads (metastatic cancer).

Bile duct cancer often goes undetected until the cancer has grown enough to cause symptoms. When the bile duct is blocked, bile cannot enter the small intestine and its active chemical, called bilirubin, builds up in your bloodstream. This causes jaundice, a condition in which your skin and the whites of your eyes become yellowish. Bile duct blockage can also lead to serious infections.

Other symptoms include:

  • Itchy skin (pruritis)
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored stools
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

These symptoms may also result from other more common conditions, such as bile duct stones.

We use a variety of blood tests, specialized imaging studies, biopsies and endoscopic (inserting a long, thin tube with a camera into your body) techniques to diagnose cancer in the bile duct.

Treatment of malignant bile duct obstruction can relieve jaundice symptoms and improve your quality of life.

We often treat bile duct obstruction as part of a care plan that is palliative. This means the treatment is aimed at helping you feel more comfortable or live longer, but is not expected to cure the cancer.

However, if bile duct or pancreas cancers are found early enough, it may be curable through surgery, often in combination with radiation and/or chemotherapy. Surgery to fully remove the tumor is considered the only potential cure for bile duct cancer.

We use the most advanced methods and tools to diagnose and treat malignant bile duct obstruction. Our experts work as part of a multidisciplinary team that includes surgeons, radiologists, radiation oncologists and medical oncologists, to provide the best possible care.

At Indiana University Health, we offer a procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), which helps in the diagnosis and treatment of problems in the biliary system (bile duct and gallbladder), pancreas and liver. We are leaders in the use of ERCP and endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) in treating digestive system diseases.

Our work includes not only patient care, but also extensive research and training. We offer an ERCP fellowship to become expert in the technique of ERCP and EUS for diagnosis, treatment and research. We provide regular ERCP training workshops for practicing physicians and nurses.

How We Can Help

How We Can Help

Malignant Bile Duct Obstruction Treatment Information

IU Health provides these procedures and services for diagnosis and treatment of malignant bile obstruction:


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Malignant Bile Duct Obstruction Support Services

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