Hepatocellular carcinoma with obstructive jaundice: diagnosis, treatment and prognosis

World J Gastroenterol. 2003 Mar;9(3):385-91. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v9.i3.385.


Obstructive jaundice as the main clinical feature is uncommon in patients with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Only 1-12 % of HCC patients manifest obstructive jaundice as the initial complaint. Such cases are clinically classified as "icteric type hepatoma", or "cholestatic type of HCC". Identification of this group of patients is important, because surgical treatment may be beneficial. HCC may involve the biliary tract in several different ways: tumor thrombosis, hemobilia, tumor compression, and diffuse tumor infiltration. Bile duct thrombosis (BDT) is one of the main causes for obstructive jaundice, and the previously reported incidence is 1.2-9 %. BDT might be benign, malignant, or a combination of both. Benign thrombi could be blood clots, pus, or sludge. Malignant thrombi could be primary intrabiliary malignant tumors, HCC with invasion to bile ducts, or metastatic cancer with bile duct invasion. The common clinical features of this type of HCC include: high level of serum AFP; history of cholangitis with dilation of intrahepatic bile duct; aggravating jaundice and rapidly developing into liver dysfunction. It is usually difficult to make diagnosis before operation, because of the low incidence rate, ignorant of this disease, and the difficulty for the imaging diagnosis to find the BDT preoperatively. Despite recent remarkable improvements in the imaging tools for diagnosis of HCC, such cases are still incorrectly diagnosed as cholangiocarcinoma or choledocholithiases. Ultrasonography (US) and CT are helpful in showing hepatic tumors and dilated intrahepatic and /or extrahepatic ducts containing dense material corresponding to tumor debris. Direct cholangiography including percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTC) and endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP) remains the standard procedure to delineate the presence and level of biliary obstruction. Magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) is superior to ERCP in interpreting the cause and depicting the anatomical extent of the perihilar obstructive jaundice, and is particularly distinctive in cases associated with tight biliary stenosis and along segmental biliary stricture. Choledochoscopy and bile duct brushing cytology could be alternative useful techniques in the differentiating obstructions due to intraluminal mass, infiltrating ductal lesions or extrinsic mass compression applicable before and after duct exploration. Jaundice is not necessarily a contraindication for surgery. Most patients will have satisfactory palliation and occasional cure if appropriate procedures are selected and carried out safely, which can result in long-term resolution of symptoms and occasional long-term survival. However, the prognosis of icteric type HCC is generally dismal, but is better than those HCC patients who have jaundice caused by hepatic insufficiency.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / complications*
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / diagnosis
  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular / therapy
  • Cholestasis / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / complications*
  • Liver Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Liver Neoplasms / therapy
  • Prognosis