Gallbladder and Bile Duct Cancer

Glossary of Terms
A +
The portion of the body between the diaphragm and the pelvis.

A pus-filled cavity.

The form of cancer that most people are talking about when they refer to "cancer of the bile ducts."

Microscopically, adenocarcinomas form glands. These tumors can grow large enough to invade nerves which can cause back pain. They also frequently spread (metastasize) to the liver or lymph nodes. If this happens the tumor may be considered unresectable.

A benign (non-cancerous) tumor made up of cells that form glands (collections of cells surrounding an empty space.)

Adjuvant chemotherapy
Chemotherapy given to patients after their cancers have been surgically removed. It is a secondary treatment given to supplement surgical treatment.

Ampulla of Vater
This widening of the pancreatic duct is an landmark for physicians. It is where the bile duct and pancreatic duct join before draining into the duodenum (small intestine). Tumors in the head of the pancreas may squeeze this duct partially or completely closed. This can lead to problems with digestion and jaundice.

A surgical joining of two hollow structures. It is similar to attaching two ends of a garden hose. For example, a gastrojejunostomy is a surgical procedure that connects the stomach and the jejunum (small intestine.)

A condition characterized by a deficiency in red blood cells. This can lead to fatigue among other symptoms.

A condition marked by a diminished apetite and aversion to food. Often results in physical signs of wasting.

A radiographic technique used to visualize blood vessels. A contrast medium (a dye) is usually injected into the vessels to make them appear white on the x-rays.

The large artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart. It descends into the abdomen where it gives off many branches to supply the organs. The superior mesenteric artery is a major branch of the aorta that is a common site of cancer metastases.

The collection of excess amounts of fluid in the abdominal cavity (belly). It often is a sign that the cancer has spread to either the liver or the portal vein that goes to the liver. If normal liver function is affected, a complex set of biochemical checks and balances is disrupted and abnormal amounts of fluid are retained.

B +
Benign tumors
Tumors which are non-cancerous. These generally grow slowly and do not invade adjacent organs or spread (metastasize) beyond the bile ducts or gallbladdder.

A green fluid produced by the liver that helps digest fats. It is transported from the liver to the duodenum by the bile duct. When the flow of bile is blocked, patients may become jaundiced (yellow skinned).

Relating to bile or the bile duct system.

The removal and microscopic examination of a tissue sample.

A primitive tumor that develops in childhood.

Body of the pancreas
The middle part of gland between the neck and the tail. The superior mesenteric blood vessels run behind this part of the gland.

C +
A blood marker for pancreas and biliary cancers. It is not a good screening test for diagnosing possible cancers. However, it can be useful in following the progress of patients known to have a cancer by measuring how their cancer is responding to treatment.

A dramatic weight loss and general wasting that occurs during chronic disease.

A malignant tumor. It has the potential of invading into the adjacent tissues, spreading to other organs and may eventually lead to the patient's death.

A cancer-causing agent.

A malignant (cancerous) new growth. These tumors infiltrate into surrounding tissues and, if untreated, will spread to other organs, and may eventually lead to the patient's death.

A small, flexible tube inserted into the body to inject or suck out fluids.

The treatment of a cancer by chemicals. For bile duct and gallbladder cancers these include: 5-flurouracil, leukovorin, mitomicin C, and others.

A cancer of the intrahepatic (within the liver) portion of the bile ducts.

Surgical removal of the gallbladder.

Computed Tomography (CT) Scan
A series of x-ray pictures taken by a machine that encircles the body like a giant tube. Computers are then used to generate cross-sectional images of the inside of the body.

Contrast agent (or medium)
A dye, taken by mouth or injected, that is sometimes used during x-ray examinations to highlight areas that otherwise might not be seen.

A fluid filled sac. Some tumors of the biliary tree, including mucinous cystadenocarcinomas are cystic. These have a distinct appearance in CT scans. They are important to recognize because the treatment of cystic tumors can differ from that for solid tumors.

D +
Diabetes Mellitus
The condition or disease in which the body is unable to appropriately control blood sugar(glucose) levels. This may be caused by failure of the pancreas to produce adequate amounts of insulin.

A dome shaped muscle that separates the lungs and heart from the abdomen. This muscle assists in breathing.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)
The part of every cell that carries all genetic information.

A small anatomic structure. This is essentially a tube that carries various bodily fluids.

The first portion of the small intestine. It is about 1 foot long.

E +
Surgical removal of a structure or part of a structure. For example, pancreatectomy is the surgical removal of the pancreas (or a portion of it), and esophagectomy is removal of the esophagus.

Endocrine cells (endo=within)
These are specialized cells that produce hormones released into the bloodstream. For example, the islets of Langerhans are endocrine cells in the pancreas that produce the hormone insulin. This hormone helps control blood sugar(glucose) levels.

Some rare tumors of the pancreas, the endocrine (Islet Cell) tumors, can produce these same hormones. It is very important that these rare tumors be properly diagnosed because it will determine the treatment and prognosis.

A medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of hormonal abnormalities.

A chemical that causes a reaction in other substances, in this case as a part of the digestive process.

ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography)
A test used to visualize and examine the pancreas and bile ducts. A tube is inserted through a patient's nose (or throat), down through the esophagus and stomach then into the small intestine (duodenum). There, a small probe is inserted into the ampulla of Vater. A dye is injected through the probe and into the pancreatic and bile ducts. X-rays are then taken and the pancreatic and bile ducts can be seen as white structures (this is because the injected dye is opaque. Because cancers often block the pancreatic and/or bile ducts, this technique can be useful in establishing a diagnosis of a cancer.

Exocrine cells (exo=outward)
The exocrine cells (acinar cells) of the pancreas produce and transport chemicals that will exit the body through the digestive system.

The chemicals that the exocrine cells produce are called enzymes. They are secreted in the duodenum where they assist in the digestion of food.

F +
5-FU (5-fluorouracil)
A chemotherapeutic drug used to treat pancreatic cancer.

G +
A green pear-shaped organ located on the right side of the abdomen just under the liver. The gallbladder is essentially a reservoir for holding bile.

See Gemzar, below.
Gemzar (Gemcitabine)
The trade name for gemcitabine. A chemotherapy drug frequently used to treat pancreatic cancer. It has been shown, in controlled clinical trials, to improve quality of life.

A hormone produced by the endocrine (islets of Langerhans) cells of the pancreas. When blood sugar levels are low, glucagon acts to raise blood sugar levels.

H +
Head of the pancreas
The widest part of the pancreas. It is found in the right part of abdomen, nestled in the curve of the duodenum, which forms an impression in the side of the pancreas.

I +
In situ
A term used to indicate that cancerous cells are present in the lining of an organ but have not spread to the "meat" of the tissue.

A hormone produced by the endocrine islets of Langerhans cells of the pancreas. It acts to lower blood sugar levels.

J +
Yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes caused by the accumulation of bile pigments. (usually due to an obstruction of the bile ducts.)

K +
Klatskin tumor
The name given to cancers arising at the confluence of the left and right bile ducts of the liver (left and right hepatic ducts)

L +
A technique that surgeons can use to visualize and even biopsy (take tissue samples of) organs inside of the abdomen without making large incisions. Very small incisions are made in the belly and small tubes (called trocars) are then inserted. Gas is pumped in through one of the tubes to create enough space to work in. The surgeon inserts a small camera through one of the tubes and examines the lining and contents of the abdominal cavity by looking at the projected image on the television screen. With specially designed laparascopic instruments, biopsies and fluid samples can be taken for examination. Some surgeons feel that this technique can help "stage" a patient less invasively than with open surgery.

The largest organ in the body, located in the right upper part of the abdomen. It performs many life-maintaining functions including the production of bile. It detoxifies the blood of drugs, alcohol and other harmful chemical. It processes nutrients absorbed by the intestine and stores essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Bilirubin is a chemical produced when old or damaged blood cells breakdown. The liver chemically process the bilirubin so that it can dissolve in water and be excreted through the bile. When this process is disrupted, jaundice can develop.

Loco-regional cancer
A primary cancer that has spread to regional lymph nodes and/or resectable (removable) tissues. Removable tissues include some lymph nodes that are routinely removed in some surgical treatments for cancer.

Lymph nodes
Normal, round, raisin to grape-sized collections of lymphocytes (white blood cells) found throughout the body. Lymph nodes are connected to each other by lymphatic vessels. They normally help fight infection, but also are one of the first sites to which cancers spread. In general, the spread of cancer to lymph nodes portends a worse prognosis for the patient. There are exceptions to this.

M +
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
A painless method for taking pictures of internal organs. A tube-like machine with a powerful magnet generates images of the inside of the body.

Malignant tumor
A cancer that has the potential of invading nearby tissues, spreading to other organs (metastasizing) and possibly leading to the patient's death.

Metastatic cancer
A cancer that has spread from one organ to another. Bile duct and gallbladder cancers most frequently metastasize to the liver. In general, cancers that have metastasized are generally not treated surgically, but instead are treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

An alteration in the DNA of a cell.

N +
Neck of the pancreas
The thin section between the head and the body of the gland.

Neoadjuvant chemo and radiation therapy
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy given to patients before surgery. Some centers feel that the use of neoadjuvant therapy improves local and regional control of disease and that it may make more patients surgical candidates.

An abnormal new growth of tissue that grows more rapidly than normal cells and will continue to grow if not treated. These growths will compete with normal cells for nutrients. This is a general term that can refer to benign or malignant growths. It is almost a synonym for the word tumor, which means a mass or growth.

O +
A medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of tumors.

A surgically created opening in an organ that can also be referred to as an anastamosis.

P +
An oblong organ located between the stomach and the spine. The pancreas secretes enzymes needed for the digestion of food and it produces hormones such as insulin and glucagon which help control blood sugar.

Any treatment that reduces the severity of a disease or its symptoms.

A term used to describe certain tumors which grow in finger-like projections. Pathologists mostly use this term.

A medical doctor specially trained to study disease processes.

Around the ampulla of Vater. The peri-ampullary region is comprised of 4 structures; the ampulla, the duodenum, the bile duct and the head of the pancreas. It is sometimes difficult to tell which structure a tumor originated in. In such cases the diagnosis will be a peri-ampullary tumor.

The biochemical study of plants; concerned with the identification, biosynthesis, metabolism of chemical constituents of plants; especially in regards to natural products.

Primary cancer
A cancer found in the organ it started in. A primary cancer of the esophagus is one that started in the esophagus as opposed to a cancer that started somewhere else and only later spread to the esophagus.

A forecast for the probable outcome of a disease based on the experience of large numbers of other patients with similar stage disease. Importantly, making a prognosis is not an exact science. Some patients with poor prognosis beat the odds and live longer than anyone would have predicted. Steve Dunn's Cancer Guide has an excellent article on statistics and prognoses and stories of other cancer patients.

A thick ring of muscle (a sphincter) between the stomach and duodenum. This sphincter helps control the release of the stomach contents into the small intestine.

Q +
none listed
R +
Radiation Therapy
The use of high-energy waves similar to x-rays to treat a cancer. Radiation therapy is usually used to treat a local area of disease and often is given in combination with chemotherapy.

Able to be removed surgically.

S +
A malignant tumor that mimics connective tissues (bone, cartilage, muscle) under the microscope.

An infection of the blood.

Small intestine
A long (20 foot) tube that stretches from the stomach to the large intestine. It helps absorb nutrients from food as the food is transported to the large intestine. There are three sections: the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. Due to its proximity to the pancreas, the duodenum is the section most often affected by pancreatic and distal common bile duct cancers.

A maroon, rounded organ in the upper left part of the abdomen, near the tail of the pancreas. This organ is part of your immune system and filters the lymph and blood in your body.

Squamous cell
A flat, scale-like cell.

A classification system used to describe the extent of disease. In general, the lower the stage, the better the prognosis.

Staging of Gallbladder Carcinoma:
Stage I - refers to tumors confined to the gallbladder and its muscular wall.

Stage II - cancers have extended into the tissues immediately around the gallbladder.

Stage III - tumors have spread to regional lymph nodes or are tumors which have directly invaded an adjacent organ.

Stage IV A - refers to tumors that extend more than 2 cm into the liver and/or into 2 or more adjacent organs.

Stage IV B - have spread (metastasized) to distant sites.
Staging of Extrahepatic Bile Duct Carcinoma:
Stage I - refers to tumors that are confined to the bile duct and its fibromuscular wall.

Stage II - refers to tumors that have extended into the connective tissues immediately around the bile duct.

Stage III - refers to tumors that have spread to regional lymph nodes.

Stage IV A - refers to tumors that have directly invaded an adjacent organ (like the liver, pancreas, duodenum, colon, or stomach).

Stage IV B - refers to tumors that have spread (metastasized) to distant sites.

Excessive amounts of fat in the stool. Sometimes this can appear as an oil slick on top of the toilet water after the patient has had a bowel movement.

A slender hollow tube inserted into the body to relieve a blockage. For example, bile duct cancers often narrow the bile duct. This can block the flow of bile and cause the patient to become jaundiced. In these cases the flow of bile can be reestablished by placing a stent into the bile duct, through the area of blockage.

T +
Tail of the Pancreas
The thin tip of gland in the left part of abdomen, near the spleen.

An inflammation of the veins accompanied by thrombus formation. It is sometimes referred to as Trousseau's sign.

A clot within the cardiovascular system. It may occlude (block) the vessel or may be attached to the wall of the vessel without blocking the blood flow.

This term simply refers to a mass or neoplasm. For example, a collection of pus is a tumor. This is a general term that can refer to benign or malignant growths.

U +
A painless procedure in which high frequency sound waves are used to generate pictures of the inside of the body.

Uncinate process of the pancreas
The part of the gland that bends backwards and underneath the body of the pancreas. Two very important blood vessels, the superior mesenteric artery and vein, cross in front of this process.

Unable to be surgically removed.

V +
Vaccine therapy
This is a new type of treatment, largely still experimental. It is a medication made of killed or weakened cells, organisms or manufactured materials, which is used to boost the body's immune system. Ideally, this will allow the body to fight and kill the cancer cells more effectively. Vaccines include whole killed cancer cells or specific proteins from the cancer.

W +
Whipple Procedure
There are several variations of this procedure. It typically involves the surgical removal of the head of the pancreas, a portion of the duodenum and a portion of the bile ducts.

X +
none listed
Y +
none listed
Z +
none listed