Treatment of cholangiocarcinoma will depend on the position and size of the cancer and whether it has spread beyond the bile duct, as well as on general health.
Surgery to completely remove the cancer is currently the only potentially curative treatment for cholangiocarcinoma. This involves a major operation and, often, because the disease is too far advanced, or the patient is already too poorly, surgery is not possible. The decision about whether an operation to remove the cancer can be done depends on the results of the diagnostic tests, and on the patient’s general health.
If surgery is possible, the patient must be referred to a surgeon who specialises in biliary tract cancer surgery. The type of operation that is done depends on the size of the cancer and whether it has begun to spread into nearby tissues.
- Removal of the bile ducts
- Partial liver resection
- Whipple procedure
- Surgery to relieve obstruction (blockage)
- Liver transplantation
- Stent Insertion
One of the frequent symptoms of cholangiocarcinoma is jaundice. This happens because the bile duct or ducts become blocked, preventing the normal flow of bile from the liver to the intestines. To allow the bile to flow again, a stent (usually a metal stent) will be inserted into the bile duct to hold it open. This will relieve the symptoms of jaundice, the patient’s general health will then improve and they are able to digest food again normally. (If chemotherapy has been recommended, it is essential this happens before it can begin.)
A stent usually needs to be replaced every 3-4 months as they can become blocked, and cause a biliary tract infection (cholangitis), which can rapidly become serious. Symptoms of a blocked stent/infection include:
- high temperature/fever
- chills, shivering
If these symptoms develop, it is important to contact the doctor or CNS (Clinical Nurse Specialist) for advice, as antibiotic treatment may be needed and the stent may need to be replaced. Read More
Chemotherapy is the use of anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells.
As at November 2015, the chemotherapy treatment for those with inoperable cholangiocarcinoma is a combination of Gemcitabine (Gemzar®) and Cisplatin. This combination was adopted as a worldwide ‘standard of care’ following the results of the UK ABC-02 trial.
Dr John Bridgewater of UCL talks about cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) and the Gemcitabine/Cisplatin study (the ABC-02 trial).
Clinical trials continue to investigate ways to better, more effective treatments. For more information on current trials, click here
Radiotherapy, which uses high energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells, is not routinely used to treat cholangiocarcinoma, although there may be occasions when it is used palliatively (to reduce symptoms).
However, there have been major advances in this technology, and SIRT, the first treatment to be made available to NHS patients in England through Commissioning through Evaluation (CtE) – a new NHS initiative to permit access to innovative therapies – is now available through the NHS in England and Scotland for certain eligible patients with cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer) in whom routine chemotherapy has been tried or has not been well tolerated.
See below for more details on SIRT.
SIRT involves injecting millions of tiny radioactive ‘beads’ called microspheres into the main blood vessel of the liver through a long thin tube (catheter). The microspheres travel through the blood to the liver and lodge themselves in the very small blood vessels in and around the liver tumours, where they give off high doses of radiation. As the microspheres only give off radiation to a small area, they target the liver tumour while doing little damage to the surrounding healthy liver tissue. The action of the radiation destroys the liver tumour cells causing the tumours to shrink. Read More
SBRT (Stereotactic body radiotherapy)
SBRT gives radiotherapy from several different positions around the body, with the beams meeting at the tumour. In this way, the tumour receives a high dose of radiation, but the tissues around it receive only a low dose, which lowers the risk of side effects. SBRT is only suitable for those whose cancer has not spread to others parts of the body.
A clinical trial, ABC-07, using a combination of SBRT and Gemcitabine/Cisplatin chemotherapy for eligible biliary tract cancer patients is now open. For more information, click here
The Cyberknife is an advanced radiotherapy technology and works very differently from conventional radiotherapy machines. The robotic arm and image sensors can track a moving target allowing for hundreds of beams of radiation from a wide variety of angles to be delivered with pinpoint accuracy.
This equipment is now being installed in several private and NHS locations in the UK and there are plans for it to be available for patients with hard-to-treat tumours in the prostate, pancreas, lung, spinal cord, head and neck, and liver. We await news on whether this will be generally available to suitable cholangiocarcinoma patients in the UK.
(For details on private Cyberknife treatment, go to: http://www.cyberknifeservice.com/)
Photodynamic therapy (PDT)
PDT uses a combination of laser light of a specific wavelength and a light-sensitive drug to destroy cancer cells. However, following the findings of the Photostent-02 trial, this therapy is no longer recommended for cholangiocarcinoma patients.
Progress in treatments for cholangicarcinoma
Current scientific advances mean that cancer treatments are moving towards those more specifically targeting the tumour ‘drivers’, and ways to inhibit these drivers. Progress is beginning to be made in the understanding of cholangiocarcinoma, with studies being carried out to find target agents, and also genomic profiling, in the search for better and more effective treatments.
To see Professor Juan Valle’s presentation on this subject in July 2015, “Progress with targeted agents in cholangiocarcinoma – reality or myth?” click here
For information on getting a referral or a second opinion for diagnosis or treatment, click here