Cancer in the bile ducts may not show any symptoms in the initial stages. The bile duct is located in the innermost part of the body and therefore it is difficult to detect early tumors during normal physical examination. When the tumor at this stage grows and moves from its original location, it begins to show symptoms.
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Understanding liver and bile duct cancer
Depending on the location of the tumor in the bile duct, symptoms can vary; however, they generally include the following:
The skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow due to jaundice
The most common symptom in bile duct cancer is jaundice, although jaundice can be non-cancerous in most cases. The first identified factor in a person with bile duct cancer is the yellowed skin and eyes. Also for such patients, the covering of the inner parts of the body, such as the nose and mouth, has a mucous membrane.
Bile (fluid) is made by the liver and is then passed into the small intestine for further functioning. Jaundice can occur when the tumor in the liver interferes with the build-up of bile, preventing bile from flowing into the gut.
Human liver anatomy. Image Credit: Designua/Shutterstock
Bile duct blockage is caused by the presence of a yellow-green chemical called bilirubin in the liver. This bilirubin then goes back into the bloodstream, body tissue or sometimes settles in the innermost part of the body.
The yellow pigment in the bile turns the white part of the eyes and skin into a yellow color. Several types of jaundice are known to occur in other diseases, including post-hepatic jaundice or obstructive jaundice caused by bile duct cancer.
The correct cause of jaundice must be diagnosed and identified by the doctor, as multiple diseases associated with jaundice are not critical or life-threatening, and biliary tract cancer is one of the less common causes.
Itchy skin is a common temporary irritation that affects all people. In some rare cases this can lead to serious problems. People with bile duct cancer may have a feeling of irritation due to the presence of higher amounts of bilirubin in the skin that come from the blood. Itching is often diagnosed in many patients with the disease.
Brown is the most normal color of stool, but in patients with bile duct cancer, the stool is very light in color. Due to a large build-up of bilirubin in the duct, the bile may not be able to reach the intestine.
In such people, fatty foods are not easily digested because the tumor impedes the flow of the fluid and pancreatic mixture to the small intestine. The unusually pale color of stools is caused by the presence of these undigested fats. The stool can be greasy, bulky and tend to float in the toilet.
The bilirubin concentration varies the color of the stool from light yellow to almost black. The stool turns green or yellow in color due to the changes in the chemical structure of the bilirubin.
If the liver produces less bilirubin or if the stools thin, yellow stools form. Variations in stool color also occur due to the presence of digestive enzymes and bacteria in the small intestine that act on bilirubin. Several interpretations have been suggested for changes in stool color.
When bilirubin levels in the blood rise, it can also affect the color of the urine, which appears dark.
Too much work in a short period of time leads to weak and tired muscles. But patients with bile duct cancer complain of general muscle weakness or physical strength and a feeling that extra effort is needed to move the legs, arms or other muscles.
A common symptom of bile duct cancer is abdominal pain; but this only occurs in the advanced stages and not in the early stages. Usually the pain develops from the right side of the abdomen, just below the ribs.
Expansion of the abdomen occurs due to the pressure of cancer in the nearby organs.
People with jaundice may develop a fever due to inflammation in the bile ducts. At high body temperatures, the patient has chills and feels cold.
Unexplained Weight Loss
The bile duct tumor patients may not feel hungry. Without a proper diet, they can easily lose weight.
Nausea and vomiting
Abnormalities in liver functions or the development of bilirubin can cause nausea. It can also occur along with fever due to the infection caused by the obstruction of the bile duct.
When these symptoms begin to manifest and are noticed, one should immediately consult the doctor and confirm whether they have cancer or any other disease. Treatments are determined depending on the diagnosis.