Surgery for bile duct cancer

Surgery is often used to help with symptoms caused by bile duct cancer. Some people are able to have surgery to remove the bile duct cancer.

About surgery for bile duct cancer

Surgery is often used to relieve symptoms caused by a bile duct cancer blocking the bowel or bile duct.

It may also be used as a main treatment for people who can have surgery to remove the cancer.

Surgery to remove the cancer

If you have bile duct cancer it may be possible to have surgery to remove the cancer. This can cure the cancer in some people. If your surgeon thinks they can remove all the cancer, doctors call this a resectable cancer. Fewer than 1 in 3 people have resectable bile duct cancer when they are diagnosed.

Whether the cancer is resectable depends on:

  • the size of the cancer
  • whether the cancer has spread to nearby tissues
  • your general health and fitness.

Only specialist surgeons with experience in bile duct cancer surgery do this type of operation. You will be referred to a specialist centre for it.

In a small number of people, bile duct cancer is found at a very early stage. This means the operation to remove the cancer is quite small. The surgeon removes only the bile ducts containing the cancer. They then join the remaining ducts in the liver to the small bowel. This allows the bile to flow again.

But surgery for bile duct cancer usually involves a major operation. This means you need to have a good level of fitness to cope with it. It is important to discuss the benefits and risks of surgery with your surgeon.

Types of surgery for bile duct cancer

The operation depends on the type of bile duct cancer you have.

  • Surgery for intrahepatic bile duct cancer

    If you have intrahepatic bile duct cancer, the cancer is in bile ducts in the liver. The surgeon removes the affected part of the liver and the bile ducts.

  • Surgery for perihilar bile duct cancer

    If you have perihilar bile duct cancer, the cancer is where the left and right hepatic ducts meet below the liver. The surgeon removes the gall bladder and the part of the liver close to the bile ducts.

    Sometimes the surgeon also removes part of the pancreas and part of the small bowel. This is the same as the type of surgery for distal bile duct cancer.

  • Surgery for distal bile duct cancer

    If you have distal bile duct cancer, the cancer is in bile ducts near the pancreas and the small bowel. The surgeon removes the bile ducts, gall bladder, part of the pancreas and part of the small bowel. We have more information about surgery for distal bile duct cancer.

After your operation

You may need to stay in a high-dependency unit (HDU) or intensive care ward for the first two days. You will then move to a general surgical ward until you recover. Most people need to be in hospital for about 1 to 2 weeks after these types of operation.

The risks and side effects of surgery depend on the extent of the operation and your general health. Your surgeon can tell you more about this. We have more information about recovering after surgery.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our bile duct cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    Valle JW, Borbath I, Khan SA, et al. Biliary cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Ann Oncol, 2016; 27, suppl 5, v28-v37. Available from www.doi.org/10.1093/annonc/mdw324 (accessed October 2019).

    Rizvi S, Khan A, Hallemeier C, et al. Cholangiocarcinoma - evolving concepts and therapeutic strategies. Clinical Oncology, 2018; 15, 2, 95-111. Available from www.doi.org/10.1038/nrclinonc.2017.157 (accessed October 2019). 


  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Dr Paul Ross, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.