Exploratory laparotomy is frequently used to diagnose, treat, or palliate cholangiocarcinoma although surgery is rarely curative. In light of newly developed percutaneous and endoscopic approaches to diagnosis and therapy, we reviewed our experience with 35 cases of cholangiocarcinoma diagnosed and treated at the University of Michigan Medical Center from 1979 to 1984. Percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography (PTCA) was performed in 34 cases of which only four were resectable. All 22 patients who had preoperative cholangiograms suggesting unresectability had confirmation of this at surgery. Surgical palliation was accomplished with a combination of internal and percutaneous drainage in most cases. Angiographic, cytologic, and laboratory data are presented. PTCA accurately predicted unresectability of cholangiocarcinoma and is superior to angiography in this respect. In patients with cholangiocarcinoma, percutaneous and endoscopic approaches offer alternatives to surgery for diagnosis and palliation.