Bile Duct Cancer: Rare and Difficult

Satoru Iwata, the president  of Nintendo, died last week from a bile-duct growth, or tumor.  He was only 55 years old. Iwata had surgery last year to remove the rare tumor and resumed working for the company even though he was still re-cooperating, according to a previous article in Bindlesnitch.

According to, Bile duct cancer, also known as cholangiocarcinoma is caused by an abnormal and uncontrolled growth of cells in the bile duct. The cause of bile duct cancers are unknown, but there are certain factors that can contribute to the risk of developing bile duct cancer. Some of these factors include:

  • Age- this type of cancer is more common in older than in younger people. 60 percent of bile duct cancer patients are 65 years or older, the website reported.
  • Being obese
  • Having a family history of this disease
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Exposure to certain chemicals such as asbestos, radon or dioxins.
  • Chronic inflammation of the bile duct
  • Bile duct or liver diseases

Cancer in the ducts can essentially block the flow of bile stemming from one’s liver to the intestine. This will cause the bile to flow back in the blood and a person’s body tissues.  In addition, the skin and whites of the eyes will turn yellow as well. The tumor will also cause urine to become dark in color, stools to look pale and the skin to become very itchy.

Other symptoms associated with bile duct cancer include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea with or without vomiting

Apparently, it was believed that Mr. Iwata had experienced these symptoms for at least a year and had to miss an important E3 conference due to this debilitating disease.

According to, about 2,000 to 3,000 people in the United States develop bile duct cancer each year. Furthermore, the website also says that bile duct cancer is much more common in Southeast Asia, mostly because a parasitic infection that can cause bile duct cancer is much more common there.

In regards to bile cancer survival rates, it all depends on the exact location of the tumor and how far it has advanced in the body. Treatment for bile duct cancer include radiation, chemotherapy or surgery.     552px-Laprascopy-Roentgen

Most bile duct cancers are usually not discovered right away. Patients typically go to their primary care physician when they begin experiencing symptoms. The doctor will then perform a physical exam and also order some preliminary tests to get to the nature of the problem.

Blood Tests

Blood tests may be required to see how much bilirubin is in the blood. A high bilirubin level tells a doctor that there may be problems with the gallbladder, bile duct or a person’s liver. Besides ordering tests for bilirubin, the doctor may also order tests for albumin to measure liver enzymes in the patient’s blood as well.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests such as CT scans or MRI could detect certain areas of the body that could be susceptible to cancer. They usually come in handy when doctors have to use a needle to collect samples for a biopsy. Furthermore, the tests can determine to see how far the cancer has spread, if treatment is working or if a tumor has returned after various courses of treatment.


For this test, a small, microphone-like instrument called a transducer gives off sound waves and picks up their echoes as they bounce off organs inside the body,” according to  The echoes are initially taken from a computer and then converted to an image on a screen. They can pick up possible tumors and can also tell if the tumor in question is either malignant or benign.

Abdominal Ultrasounds

This is usually the first test that is done if someone has jaundice or is experiencing pain in the right upper part of their abdomen. This test is relatively easy to use and does not require radiation like CT or MRI scans do.

The patient usually lays flat on a table while an ultrasound technician or doctor moves the transducer across the skin to detect any abnormalities. This test can allow a doctor to collect a biopsy sample by inserting a needle in a suspicious area of a possible tumor growth. This is referred to as  an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy.

Endoscopic or Laparoscopic Ultrasounds

During these procedures, the doctor places the ultrasound transducer inside the patient’s body near the bile duct to get a better picture on what is going on. The transducer is located on the end of small-thin tube that contains an attached viewing device. It is first inserted through the mouth, then the stomach and eventually into the small intestine near the bile ducts (endoscopic ultrasound) or even through a small surgical cut on the side of the person’s body (laparoscopic ultrasound).

There are of course other tests to run to determine whether a person has bile duct cancer, but these are just a select few of them.


There really is no sure-fire way to prevent bile cancer, but there are steps people can take to reduce their risks of getting the disease in the first place. Some ways they can reduce their chances of getting the cancer include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Getting vaccinated for the Hepatitis B (HBV) virus
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol which could lead to cirrhosis of the liver
  • Avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals
  • Treating Hepatitis infections (B or C) to prevent cirrhosis

ALSO SEE:  Nintendo President Dies at 55

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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