Monday, October 20, 2014

How Bile Duct Cancer Begins...

My mother's mother in 1954. She died from liver complications in 1969. Did my mother inherit mutated genes from her mother? Doubtful, but mom did inherit some issues that complicated her disease.
Now that my frantic caregiving chores for mom are over, I've been concentrating on how her cholangiocarcinoma occurred. My mother's age contributed to her risk factor. More than two out of three patients diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma are older than age 65, and my mother was 78 when she was diagnosed. But lately I've been viewing more news on younger deaths from this cancer.

Cancer usually results from gene mutation, and sometimes this proclivity to certain mutations is inherited. Gene mutations related to bile duct cancers, however, usually are acquired during a lifetime rather than inherited. What changes during a lifetime could contribute to bile duct cancer?

  • Liver fluke (parasitic flatworm) infections that settle in the bile duct and cause irritation is a major cause of bile duct cancer in Asia, but very rare in the U.S. It can affect people who travel to Asia and who eat raw or poorly cooked fish in that region.
  • Bile duct infections or inflammation (cholangitis) can lead to scar tissue (sclerosis), which can create a risk for cholangiocarcinoma. Many people who have this disease (Primary sclerosing cholangitis or PSC) also may have issues with ulcerative colitis. Risk factors for progression of any of the issues to bile duct cancer can be as high as 30 percent.
  • Bile-filled sacs connected to the bile duct are called choledochal cysts. The cells in these cysts, as with cysts in other parts of the body, can contain areas of pre-cancerous changes.
  • People who are born with, or who develop, abnormalities where the bile and pancreatic ducts meet can be at higher risk for bile duct cancer. This abnormality can prevent bile from exiting the ducts normally, and that condition can prove deadly.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver, caused by alcohol excess or diseases such as hepatitis, can create scar tissue that can affect the bile duct and lead to #2. Liver diseases and subsequent scar tissues can contribute up to 15 percent of bile duct cancers.
  • Exposure to certain industry chemicals and PCBs can also lead to possible bile duct cancer.
  • Thorotrast, a contrast agent that radiologists no longer used in x-rays, is a huge culprit in cholangiocarcinoma cases in individuals who are old enough to have had x-rays through the mid-1950s. The connection between the ingestion of Thorotrast and bile duct cancer can be up to 100 percent.
Some medical facilities and cancer institutions list other causes, including obesity, exposure to asbestos, smoking, exposure to radon, and diabetes. All these factors often contribute to liver damage and then scarring and damage to bile ducts. Is there a way to determine if you are at risk for bile duct cancer? Yes -- if you know that you are subject to any of the conditions listed above.

Can this cancer be detected early? According to the American Cancer Society, the answer is no.
The bile duct is located deep inside the body, so early tumors cannot be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams. There are currently no blood tests or other tests that can reliably detect bile duct cancers early enough to be useful as screening tests. Without effective screening tests, most bile duct cancers are found only when the cancer has grown enough to cause symptoms. The most common symptom is jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes, which is caused by a blocked bile duct.
From experience, I can tell you that the jaundice is a symptom, but it's also an alarm. It's the alarm that starts the race to the end of the cancer patient's life. How much time will that patient have? Anywhere from three months to 18 months, depending upon a number of factors including new procedures that can extend that patient's life.

But, that's another story...