Bladder cancer is a type of cancer that begins in your bladder — a balloon-shaped organ in your pelvic area that stores urine. Bladder cancer begins most often in the cells that line the inside of the bladder. Bladder cancer typically affects older adults, though it can occur at any age.
The great majority of bladder cancers are diagnosed at an early stage — when bladder cancer is highly treatable. However, even early-stage bladder cancer is likely to recur. For this reason, bladder cancer survivors often undergo follow-up tests to look for bladder cancer recurrence for years after treatment.
Bladder cancer signs and symptoms may include:
- Blood in urine (hematuria) — urine may appear dark yellow, bright red or cola colored. Or urine may appear normal, but blood may be detected in a microscopic examination of the urine
- Frequent urination
- Painful urination
- Back pain
- Pelvic pain
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, such as blood in your urine.
It's not always clear what causes bladder cancer. Bladder cancer has been linked to smoking, a parasitic infection, radiation and chemical exposure.
Bladder cancer develops when cells in the bladder begin to grow abnormally. Rather than grow and divide in an orderly way, these cells develop mutations that cause them to grow out of control and not die. These abnormal cells form a tumor.
Types of bladder cancer
Different types of cells in your bladder can become cancerous. The type of bladder cell where cancer begins determines the type of bladder cancer. Your bladder cancer type determines which treatments may work best for you. Types of bladder cancer include:
Transitional cell carcinoma. Transitional cell carcinoma occurs in the cells that line the inside of your bladder. Transitional cells expand when your bladder is full and contract when your bladder is empty. These same cells line the inside of your ureters and your urethra, and tumors can form in those places as well. Transitional cell carcinoma is the most common type of bladder cancer in the United States.
Squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells appear in your bladder in response to infection and irritation. Over time they can become cancerous. Squamous cell bladder cancer is rare in the United States. It's more common in parts of the world where a certain parasitic infection (schistosomiasis) is a prevalent cause of bladder infections.
Adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinoma begins in cells that make up mucus-secreting glands in the bladder. Adenocarcinoma of the bladder is rare in the United States.
Some bladder cancers include more than one type of cell.
Treatment & Drugs
Your treatment options for bladder cancer depend on a number of factors, including the type and stage of the cancer, your overall health, and your treatment preferences. Discuss your options with your doctor to determine what treatments are best for you.
The types of surgical procedures available to you may be based on factors such as the stage of your bladder cancer, your overall health and your preferences.
Surgery for early-stage bladder cancer
If your cancer is very small and hasn't invaded the wall of your bladder, your doctor may recommend:
Surgery to remove the tumor. Transurethral resection (TUR) is often used to remove bladder cancers that are confined to the inner layers of the bladder. During TUR, your doctor passes a small wire loop through a cystoscope and into your bladder. The loop is used to burn away cancer cells with an electric current. In some cases, a high-energy laser may be used instead of electric current. TUR may cause painful or bloody urination for a few days following the procedure.
Surgery to remove the tumor and a small portion of the bladder.During segmental cystectomy, sometimes called partial cystectomy, the surgeon removes only the portion of the bladder that contains cancer cells. Segmental cystectomy may be an option if your cancer is limited to one area of the bladder that can easily be removed without harming bladder function.
Surgery carries a risk of bleeding and infection. You may experience more frequent urination after segmental cystectomy, since the operation reduces the size of your bladder. Over time, this may improve.
Surgery for invasive bladder cancer
If your cancer has invaded the deeper layers of the bladder wall, you may consider:
Surgery to remove the entire bladder. A radical cystectomy is an operation to remove the entire bladder, as well as surrounding lymph nodes. In men, radical cystectomy typically includes removal of the prostate and seminal vesicles. In women, radical cystectomy involves removal of the uterus, ovaries and part of the vagina.
Cystectomy carries a risk of infection and bleeding. In men, removal of the prostate and seminal vesicles may cause erectile dysfunction. But in many cases, your surgeon can attempt to spare the nerves necessary for an erection. In women, removal of the ovaries causes infertility and premature menopause.
Surgery to create a new way for urine to leave your body.Immediately after your radical cystectomy, your surgeon works to create a new way for you to expel urine. Several options exist. Which option is best for you depends on your situation and your preferences. Your surgeon may create a tube (urinary conduit) using a piece of your intestine. The tube runs from your kidneys to the outside of your body, where your urine drains into a pouch (urostomy bag) you wear on your abdomen.
In another procedure, your surgeon may use a section of intestine to create a small reservoir for urine inside your body (cutaneous continent urinary diversion). You can drain urine from the reservoir through a hole in your abdomen using a catheter a few times each day.
In select cases, your surgeon may create a bladder-like reservoir out of a piece of your intestine (neobladder). This reservoir sits inside your body and is attached to your urethra, which allows you to urinate normally. You may need to use a catheter to drain all the urine from your neobladder.
Biological therapy (immunotherapy)
Biological therapy, sometimes called immunotherapy, works by signaling your body's immune system to help fight cancer cells. Biological therapy for bladder cancer is typically administered through your urethra and directly into the bladder (intravesical therapy).
Biological therapy drugs used to treat bladder cancer include:
An immune-stimulating bacterium. Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) is a bacterium used in tuberculosis vaccines. BCG can cause bladder irritation and blood in your urine. Some people feel as if they have the flu after treatment with BCG.
A synthetic version of an immune system protein. Interferon is a protein that your immune system makes to help your body fight infections. A synthetic version of interferon, called interferon alfa-2b (Intron A), may be used to treat bladder cancer. Interferon alfa-2b is sometimes used in combination with BCG. Interferon alfa-2b can cause flu-like symptoms.
Biological therapy can be administered after TUR to reduce the risk that cancer will recur.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy treatment for bladder cancer usually involves two or more chemotherapy drugs used in combination. Drugs can be given through a vein in your arm (intravenously), or they can be administered directly to your bladder by passing a tube through your urethra (intravesical therapy).
Chemotherapy may be used to kill cancer cells that might remain after surgery. It may also be used before surgery. In this case, chemotherapy may shrink a tumor enough to allow the surgeon to perform a less invasive surgery. Chemotherapy is sometimes combined with radiation therapy.
Radiation therapy is used infrequently in people with bladder cancer. Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams aimed at your cancer to destroy the cancer cells. Radiation therapy for bladder cancer usually comes from a machine that moves around your body, directing the energy beams to precise points.
Radiation therapy can be used after surgery to kill cancer cells that might remain. Radiation therapy is sometimes combined with chemotherapy.