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Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find the Primary Liver Cancer article more useful, or one of our other health articles.

Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.

Synonym: Klatskin's tumour

Cholangiocarcinoma is a carcinoma arising in any part of the biliary tree from the small intrahepatic bile ducts to the ampulla of Vater at the distal end of the common bile duct. More than 90% of cholangiocarcinomas are ductal adenocarcinomas and the remainder are squamous cell tumours.[1]

  • Most commonly, they occur in the perihilar region (classical hilar cholangiocarcinoma) near the bifurcation of right and left hepatic ducts.
  • Tumours occurring between the upper border of the pancreas and ampulla of Vater are the next most common and are classified as distal extrahepatic tumours.
  • Can also occur (least commonly) as an intrahepatic tumour.
  • Incidence is 1-2 per 100,000 population per year in the UK and the USA.[2]
  • Most cases occur in those aged over 60 years.
  • There is a high incidence of cholangiocarcinoma in Southeast Asian countries, due to chronic endemic parasitic infection with liver flukes.
  • In Japan and Israel the incidence is much higher at 5.5 and 7.3 cases per 100,000 people per year.[3]
  • The incidence of intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma is increasing and the incidence is estimated as 0.9-1.3/100,000 for males and 0.4-0.7/100,000 for females. Intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma accounts for 10-15% of primary liver cancer.[4]

Risk factors

  • Patients with chronic ulcerative colitis who develop primary sclerosing cholangitis are prone to cholangiocarcinoma. The lifetime risk of developing this cancer is 10-20% with primary sclerosing cholangitis. Some patients with Crohn's disease may also be at risk.
  • Infection with the liver flukes Clonorchis sinensis or Opisthorchis viverrini has been causally linked. Ascaris lumbricoides infection has also been implicated.[5]
  • Industrial chemical exposure: chemicals used in the aircraft, rubber and wood-finishing industries have been implicated.
  • Thorium exposure is associated with an increase in cases of cholangiocarcinoma.[6]
  • Congenital abnormalities of the bile ducts - eg, choledochal cysts.[7]
  • Caroli's disease (a rare congenital disorder of the intrahepatic bile ducts associated with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease where the bile ducts become chronically dilated).[8]
  • Recently implicated potential risk factors for the intrahepatic form include hepatitis C, HIV, cirrhosis and diabetes.[9]
  • Jaundice is an early feature in perihilar tumours, usually with hepatomegaly.
  • Abdominal pain, localised to the right upper quadrant, especially in advanced disease.
  • Weight loss is variable.
  • Pale-coloured stools, passage of dark urine, upper gastrointestinal pain (dull ache in the upper right quadrant), weight loss, anorexia and general malaise are common features.
  • Pruritus may be the presenting symptom predating jaundice on occasions.
  • Hepatomegaly.
  • Splenomegaly is present if prolonged biliary obstruction has caused secondary biliary cirrhosis.
  • The presence of a palpable gallbladder (Courvoisier's sign) may occur with tumours distal to the cystic duct.

Diagnosis should be made on the basis of radiological investigations (including CT or MRI) and pathological assessment from a biopsy, fine-needle aspiration or biliary brush cytology.[4]

  • LFTs: elevated conjugated bilirubin. Cholestatic picture with markedly elevated alkaline phosphatase, gamma-GT elevated with aminotransferases affected minimally.
  • Prothrombin time and INR may be prolonged.
  • Tumour markers: carbohydrate antigen (CA) 19-9 and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) tumour markers may be raised (also found in other causes of obstructive jaundice).[7]
  • Alpha-fetoprotein is not produced by cholangiocarcinoma.
  • Ultrasound and CT scan: hilar tumours show dilatation of intrahepatic biliary tree.
  • Contrast MRI is the optimal imaging for diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma.[7]However, it is inferior to CT for detecting distant metastases.
  • MRI cholangiography or endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) shows the site of obstruction. ERCP may be used to obtain samples for biopsy or cytological analysis.
  • Angiography may be conducted as a prelude to surgical intervention, as encasement of the hepatic arteries or portal vein precludes successful surgical therapy.

Staging is based on the tumour, node and metastasis (TNM) classification with some modifications for intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma, perihilar cholangiocarcinoma and distal cholangiocarcinoma. Hilar cholangiocarcinoma is clinically staged depending on the involvement of the hepatic ducts according to the Bismuth-Corlette classification (see European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) guideline reference for details).[4] Staging consists of:

  • Complete history and physical examination.
  • Blood counts, LFTs.
  • CXR.
  • Imaging of the abdomen by sonography and CT scan or MRI.
  • Endoscopic retrograde or percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography.
  • Endoscopic ultrasonography, cholangioscopy and laparoscopy may be required.
  • Upper and lower gastrointestinal tract endoscopy has to be performed in patients with an isolated intrahepatic mass.


  • Complete surgical resection is the only intervention to offer a chance of cure but fewer than 33% are resectable at diagnosis.[7]
  • Intrahepatic and Klatskin tumours require liver resection.[12]
  • Aggressive surgical resection (including liver resection ± liver transplantation) with adjuvant chemotherapy may offer a cure rate of around 30% in suitable candidates at the best centres.[13, 14, 15]
  • Palliative surgery is required if stenting cannot be achieved. Surgical bypass procedures may be required for biliary obstruction, especially for tumours in the common bile duct.
  • Adjuvant chemotherapy is thought to be of benefit but there is no consensus on its effect or optimal regimens.[16]
  • Adjuvant radiation therapy and pre-operative radiation therapy have been used to reduce tumours in an effort to make them resectable. Radiotherapy without surgery, with or without chemotherapy, has been shown to improve survival in patients with inoperable or unresectable tumours.[13]

Non-surgical therapy

Postoperative treatment after non-curative resection of cholangiocarcinoma remains controversial, and both supportive care and palliative chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy may be considered.[4]

  • Stents:
    • ERCP may be used to stent the bile duct to relieve symptoms; they are prone to occlusion and may need replacing approximately every three months.
    • Self-expanding metal stents seem to offer the best technical outcome.[17]
    • However, there is no evidence to support the benefit of ERCP with stenting in patients with malignant pancreaticobiliary diseases while awaiting surgery.[18]
  • For advanced cholangiocarcinoma, endoscopic biliary stenting has become an established treatment. Recent evidence supports the use of metal stents over plastic to improve survival and stent patency. Other treatments such as radiofrequency ablation, transarterial chemoembolisation and radiotherapy have shown promise, and cisplatin and gemcitabine are now becoming first-line chemotherapy agents in advanced cholangiocarcinoma.[19]
  • Chemotherapy used without radiotherapy has not shown any significant local control or survival benefit.[20]
  • Photodynamic therapy is an experimental treatment which may have some benefit in terms of prolonging survival but is not currently recommended as part of routine management.[21]
  • The reality for most patients is that their long-term survival is unlikely and good palliative symptom-relieving care is the mainstay of management.
  • The risk of biliary tract sepsis is increased and may cause a deterioration which is amenable to antibiotic therapy.
  • Secondary biliary cirrhosis occurs in 10-20% of patients.
  • Progressive deterioration with average survival of 12-18 months from diagnosis. The overall survival rates are low because many patients present with unresectable or metastatic disease.
  • Even in patients undergoing aggressive surgery, five-year survival rates are 10-40% for cholangiocarcinoma.[4]
  • Prognosis is much better for those with extrahepatic tumours who are suitable for early surgical intervention.
  • Intrahepatic lesions carry the worst prognosis.

Further reading and references

  1. Nakanuma Y, Sato Y, Harada K, et al; Pathological classification of intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma based on a new concept. World J Hepatol. 2010 Dec 272(12):419-27. doi: 10.4254/wjh.v2.i12.419.

  2. Khan SA, Emadossadaty S, Ladep NG, et al; Rising trends in cholangiocarcinoma: is the ICD classification system misleading us? J Hepatol. 2012 Apr56(4):848-54. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2011.11.015. Epub 2011 Dec 13.

  3. Ganeshan D, Moron FE, Szklaruk J; Extrahepatic biliary cancer: New staging classification. World J Radiol. 2012 Aug 284(8):345-52. doi: 10.4329/wjr.v4.i8.345.

  4. Biliary cancer: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; European Society for Medical Oncology (2011)

  5. Rana SS, Bhasin DK, Nanda M, et al; Parasitic infestations of the biliary tract. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2007 Apr9(2):156-64.

  6. Zhu AX, Lauwers GY, Tanabe KK; Cholangiocarcinoma in association with Thorotrast exposure. J Hepatobiliary Pancreat Surg. 200411(6):430-3.

  7. Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Cholangiocarcinoma; British Society of Gastroenterology (2012)

  8. Ananthakrishnan AN, Saeian K; Caroli's disease: identification and treatment strategy. Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2007 Apr9(2):151-5.

  9. Shaib YH, El-Serag HB, Davila JA, et al; Risk factors of intrahepatic cholangiocarcinoma in the United States: a case-control study. Gastroenterology. 2005 Mar128(3):620-6.

  10. Brito AF, Abrantes AM, Encarnacao JC, et al; Cholangiocarcinoma: from molecular biology to treatment. Med Oncol. 2015 Nov32(11):245. doi: 10.1007/s12032-015-0692-x. Epub 2015 Oct 1.

  11. Van Beers BE; Diagnosis of cholangiocarcinoma. HPB (Oxford). 200810(2):87-93. doi: 10.1080/13651820801992716.

  12. Serrablo A, Tejedor L; Outcome of surgical resection in Klatskin tumors. World J Gastrointest Oncol. 2013 Jul 155(7):147-58. doi: 10.4251/wjgo.v5.i7.147.

  13. Pandey D, Lee KH, Tan KC; The role of liver transplantation for hilar cholangiocarcinoma. Hepatobiliary Pancreat Dis Int. 2007 Jun6(3):248-53.

  14. Zervos EE, Osborne D, Goldin SB, et al; Stage does not predict survival after resection of hilar cholangiocarcinomas promoting an aggressive operative approach. Am J Surg. 2005 Nov190(5):810-5.

  15. Ghali P, Marotta PJ, Yoshida EM, et al; Liver transplantation for incidental cholangiocarcinoma: analysis of the Canadian experience. Liver Transpl. 2005 Nov11(11):1412-6.

  16. Puhalla H, Schuell B, Pokorny H, et al; Treatment and outcome of intrahepatic cholangiocellular carcinoma. Am J Surg. 2005 Feb189(2):173-7.

  17. Singhal D, van Gulik TM, Gouma DJ; Palliative management of hilar cholangiocarcinoma. Surg Oncol. 2005 Aug14(2):59-74.

  18. Mumtaz K, Hamid S, Jafri W; Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreaticography with or without stenting in patients with pancreaticobiliary malignancy, prior to surgery. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18(3):CD006001.

  19. Shariff MI, Khan SA, Westaby D; The palliation of cholangiocarcinoma. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2013 Jun7(2):168-74. doi: 10.1097/SPC.0b013e32835f1e2f.

  20. Ramirez-Merino N, Aix SP, Cortes-Funes H; Chemotherapy for cholangiocarcinoma: An update. World J Gastrointest Oncol. 2013 Jul 155(7):171-6. doi: 10.4251/wjgo.v5.i7.171.

  21. Photodynamic therapy for bile duct cancer; NICE Interventional Procedure Guidance, July 2005