Author Information: Maeve A. Lowerey, MD, Ghassan K. Abou-Alfa, MD Affiliation of Authors: Maeve A. Lowerey, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology (Ireland and Europe); Ghassan K. Abou-Alfa, MD, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology. NORD gratefully thanks the authors Maeve A Lowery MD, and Ghassan Abou-Alfa MD for providing the research article.
Cholangiocarcinomas are cancers that arise from the cells lining the bile duct. They are grouped according to the location from which they arise as intrahepatic (arising from the bile ducts inside the liver) perihilar (arising from the bile ducts where they exit the liver) or distal (arising from the bile ducts outside the liver). Gallbladder cancers are also biliary tract cancers, but arise from the cells lining the inside of the gallbladder. More than 95% of tumors arising from the biliary tract are a type of cancer called adenocarcinomas. The majority of patients with bile duct cancers are diagnosed when the cancer is far too advanced to be removed by surgery. In some patients, even if the cancer cannot be removed by surgery, an operation may be needed to relieve jaundice or blockage of the stomach outlet. In patients in whom the cancer is diagnosed at an early stage where surgery is possible, complex operating techniques are often required and surgery should be performed by a specialist surgeon with expertise and experience in dealing with patients with bile duct cancers.
Patients may have no symptoms, particularly when the cancer is at an early stage. Occasionally biliary tract cancers are diagnosed incidentally when a CT or MRI scan is done for another reason, or when the gallbladder is removed due to symptomatic gallstones. Patients may have non-specific symptoms including weight loss, abdominal pain, fevers, night sweats and fatigue. Distal and perihilar cholangiocarcinomas or gallbladder cancers more frequently cause patients to develop jaundice due to tumor or lymph nodes blocking a major bile duct.
Most cases of biliary tract cancer are sporadic, with no identifiable predisposing patient factors. There are several known risk factors for development of cholangiocarcinoma however, including liver cirrhosis, hepatitis B and C, biliary tract stones, liver fluke infections, a congenital anatomical abnormality called a choledochal cyst and the chronic condition of inflamed bile ducts also called primary sclerosing cholangitis. Exposure to some industrial chemicals such as nitrosamines, dioxin, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls are also thought to increase an individual’s risk of developing cholangiocarcinoma. In the USA, gallbladder cancer is commonly associated with the presence of long standing gallstones resulting in calcification of the gallbladder wall or “porcelain gallbladder”. Gallbladder polyps are also associated with increased risk of gallbladder cancer. The incidence of bile duct cancers differs worldwide, likely reflecting both differing genetic predisposition and variable exposure to known risk factors.
Approximately 12,000 new cases of bile duct cancers are diagnosed in the USA each year, of which over 9,000 are gallbladder cancers and distal/perihilar cholangiocarcinomas and 3,000 are intrahepatic cholangiocarcinomas . The overall incidence of perihilar cholangiocarcinoma in the United States is 1 case per 100,000 population per year. The incidence of intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma in the United States is approximately 0.7 per 100,000. During the last 30 years, it appears that the incidence of biliary tract cancers in the United States is increasing. This increase may be due in part to increased recognition of the diagnosis of biliary cancer, cases which may previously have been classified as cancer of unknown origin. Gallbladder cancer is more common in women than in men, and in some countries the rates are three times higher for women. Certain geographic areas are characterized by a high incidence of gallbladder cancer, including Chile, Bolivia and India. A high incidence also has been documented in North American Native Americans and Mexican Americans.
A diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma or gallbladder cancer is made based on identification of characteristic symptoms (if present), a detailed patient history, clinical examination and several specialized tests including blood test, imaging tests and endoscopic procedures. Either CT or MRI scans may be used to assess the tumor size and to look for blockage of the bile ducts and sites of spread[9, 10]. ERCP may be used to insert a stent into a blocked bile duct to relieve jaundice. A biopsy is usually required to confirm the pathologic diagnosis and may be obtained by a CT or endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) guided biopsy. Some patients with gallbladder cancer are incidentally diagnosed following elective removal of their gallbladder due to gallstones, where the cancer is only detected on pathologic examination.
Optimal treatment of biliary tract cancers requires coordinated care of a team of medical professionals, usually including a medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, radiation oncologist, gastroenterologis. and pathologist.
Surgery: Selected patients with localized disease may be candidates for surgical resection. The surgical approach differs depending on the location of the primary tumor. Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma is usually managed with a liver resection, while distal cholangiocarcinomas require a Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) similar to pancreatic cancer, with resection of part of the stomach, pancreas and bile duct. Perihilar cholangiocarcinomas are located where the main bile ducts and blood vessels enter and exit the liver, and so may require a complex surgical procedure involving both liver and bile duct resection. Surgery for gallbladder cancer requires resection of the gallbladder and surrounding liver, and removal of several adjacent lymph nodes.
Chemotherapy: Patients who undergo surgical resection of the tumor may be candidates for post-operative preventative chemotherapy. Due to the relative rarity of gallbladder cancer and cholangiocarcinoma, there is limited data available from clinical trials to guide the use of preventative treatment for these cancers. Information obtained from patients treated at high volume centers however, suggests a benefit to a 6 months course of post-operative chemotherapy in patients who undergo surgery for localized gallbladder cancer and perihilar/distal cholangiocarcinomas. This usually involves a six months course of treatment with chemotherapy called gemcitabine and/or 5-fluorouracil chemotherapy. The benefit of post-operative chemotherapy for intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma is not yet well established. In selected cases of perihilar/distal cholangiocarcinoma, preventative radiation therapy may be considered in addition to chemotherapy.
The majority of patients with biliary tract cancer are diagnosed when the cancer is far too advanced to be removed by surgery. In these cases, chemotherapy is the mainstay of treatment. While chemotherapy in this setting is not curative, it can control and contain the cancer, help patients to live longer and delay or prevent the development of cancer related symptoms. Decision to treat is based on the patient’s level of well-being and presence of other medical conditions. In patients who are well enough, combining two chemotherapy drugs called gemcitabine plus cisplatin is considered a standard of care.
Several targeted drug therapies are under investigation for treatment of inoperable biliary tract cancers, including inhibitors of MEK1/2, BRAF and drugs which reduce blood vessel growth to tumors (anti-angiogenic[17, 18]). More information is needed from ongoing clinical trials to assess if these treatments will be of benefit to patients with gallbladder cancer and/or cholangiocarcinoma in the future.
Several clinical trials are investigating direct delivery of chemotherapy to the liver via a surgically implantable abdominal pump.
Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at www.clinicaltrials.gov. All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.
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