Expert Explains Rare Biliary Tract Cancers

New Brunswick, N.J., February 1, 2024 – Although considered a rare disease according to the American Cancer Society, gallbladder and bile duct cancers (also known as hepatobiliary cancers) affect thousands of people in the U.S. each year. 

While gallbladder cancer and bile duct cancer are separate diseases, they are both part of the biliary drainage system and tend to be cancers that begin in glandular cells in tissue that lines the biliary tract.

The gallbladder is a small organ that is connected to the liver by the bile ducts. The function of this organ is to store bile, a substance produced by the liver to aid in the digestion of dietary fats. When cancer develops in the gallbladder, it usually begins within the innermost layers and then gradually spreads to the surrounding tissues.

Quick Facts: 

  • In the U.S., the risk of developing gallbladder cancer is highest among Mexican Americans,  Latin Americans and Native Americans
  • Worldwide, gallbladder cancer is much more common in India, Pakistan, and Central European and South American countries than it is in the U.S.
  • Gallbladder cancer is not often found until it has become advanced and causes symptoms
  • Risk factors for gallbladder cancer include gallstones, porcelain gallbladder, obesity, choledochal cysts, bile duct abnormalities, gallbladder polyps, and smoking
  • Symptoms of gallbladder cancer include yellowing of the skin and/or eyes, clay-colored stools, itching, fever, loss of appetite and/or weight loss, and pain in the upper right abdomen that may radiate to the back.

Bile ducts are a series of thin tubes (ducts) that transfer bile fluid from the liver to the small intestine.

Bile duct cancer, also known as cholangiocarcinoma, is caused by the abnormal growth of cells in the bile duct that can occur in any portion of the biliary ductal system.

Quick Facts:

  • In the U.S., the risk of bile duct cancer is highest among Hispanic Americans. 
  • Worldwide, bile duct cancer is more common in Southeast Asia than it is in the U.S.
  • Bile duct cancer is seen mainly in older people, but it can occur in younger people.
  • Risk factors for bile duct cancer include people who have chronic (long-standing) inflammation of the bile duct, older age, inflammatory bowel disease, and obesity.
  • Symptoms of bile duct cancer include jaundice, itching, light-colored/greasy stool, dark urine, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, fever, nausea and vomiting. 

What type of treatments are available at an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center for patients with these types of rare cancers? 

As New Jersey’s only NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, Rutgers Cancer Institute together with RWJBarnabas Health, provide patients have access to clinical trials that may improve outcomes and quality of life. We continue to offer most patients with these diseases systemic therapy after surgery based on recent clinical trials.  Additionally, treatment options such as immunotherapy and targeted therapy may be offered to patients through our program.

Timothy Kennedy, MD, MBA, is a surgical oncologist at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an associate professor of surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Learn more about the Liver Cancer and Bile Duct Cancer Program at the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, together with RWJBarnabas Health.

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Krista Didzbalis  
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