Fact: Bladder cancer is highly treatable.
What Is Bladder Cancer?
Bladder cancer begins when cells in the urinary bladder start to grow uncontrollably. As more cancer cells develop, they can form a tumor and spread to other areas of the body.
The bladder is a hollow organ in the pelvis with flexible, muscular walls. Its main function is to store urine before it leaves the body. Urine is made by the kidneys and is then carried to the bladder through tubes called ureters. When you urinate, the muscles in the bladder contract, and urine is forced out of the bladder through a tube called the urethra.
Start and spread of bladder cancer
The wall of the bladder has several layers, which are made up of different types of cells. Most bladder cancers start in the innermost lining of the bladder, which is called the urothelium or transitional epithelium. As the cancer grows into or through the other layers in the bladder wall, it becomes more advanced and can be harder to treat.
Over time, the cancer might grow outside the bladder and into nearby structures. It might spread to nearby lymph nodes, or to other parts of the body. (If bladder cancer spreads, it often goes first to distant lymph nodes, the bones, the lungs, or the liver.)
Types of bladder cancer
Several types of cancer can start in the bladder.
Urothelial carcinoma (transitional cell carcinoma)
Urothelial carcinoma, also known as transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), is by far the most common type of bladder cancer. In fact, if you are told you have bladder cancer it is almost certain to be a urothelial carcinoma. These cancers start in the urothelial cells that line the inside of the bladder.
Urothelial cells also line other parts of the urinary tract, such as the part of the kidney that connects to the ureter (called the renal pelvis), the ureters, and the urethra. Patients with bladder cancer sometimes have other tumors in these places, so the entire urinary tract needs to be checked for tumors.
Invasive versus non-invasive bladder cancer
Bladder cancers are often described based on how far they have invaded into the wall of the bladder:
- Non-invasive cancers are still in the inner layer of cells (the transitional epithelium) but have not grown into the deeper layers.
- Invasive cancers have grown into deeper layers of the bladder wall. These cancers are more likely to spread and are harder to treat.
A bladder cancer can also be described as superficial or non-muscle invasive. These terms include both non-invasive tumors as well as any invasive tumors that have not grown into the main muscle layer of the bladder.
Papillary versus flat cancer
Bladder cancers are also divided into 2 subtypes, papillary and flat, based on how they grow (see image above).
- Papillary carcinomas grow in slender, finger-like projections from the inner surface of the bladder toward the hollow center. Papillary tumors often grow toward the center of the bladder without growing into the deeper bladder layers. These tumors are called non-invasive papillary cancers. Very low-grade (slow growing), non-invasive papillary cancer is sometimes called papillary urothelial neoplasm of low-malignant potential (PUNLMP) and tends to have a very good outcome.
- Flat carcinomas do not grow toward the hollow part of the bladder at all. If a flat tumor is only in the inner layer of bladder cells, it is known as a non-invasive flat carcinoma or a flat carcinoma in situ (CIS).
If either a papillary or flat tumor grows into deeper layers of the bladder, it is called an invasive urothelial (or transitional cell) carcinoma.
Other cancers that start in the bladderSeveral other types of cancer can start in the bladder, but these are all much less common than urothelial (transitional cell) cancer.
Squamous cell carcinoma: In the United States, only about 1% to 2% of bladder cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Under a microscope, the cells look much like the flat cells that are found on the surface of the skin. Nearly all squamous cell carcinomas are invasive.
Adenocarcinoma: Only about 1% of bladder cancers are adenocarcinomas. The cancer cells have a lot in common with gland-forming cells of colon cancers. Nearly all adenocarcinomas of the bladder are invasive.
Small cell carcinoma: Less than 1% of bladder cancers are small-cell carcinomas, which start in nerve-like cells called neuroendocrine cells. These cancers often grow quickly and typically need to be treated with chemotherapy like that used for small cell carcinoma of the lung.
Sarcoma: Sarcomas start in the muscle cells of the bladder, but they are rare.
These less common types of bladder cancer (other than sarcoma) are treated similar to TCCs, especially for early stage tumors, but if chemotherapy is needed, different drugs might be used.
Bladder Cancer Risk Factors
A risk factor is anything that changes your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.
But having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. Many people with risk factors never get bladder cancer, while others with this disease may have few or no known risk factors.
Still, it’s important to know about the risk factors for bladder cancer because there may be things you can do that might lower your risk of getting it. If you are at higher risk because of certain factors, you might be helped by tests that could find it early, when treatment is most likely to be effective.Several risk factors make a person more likely to develop bladder cancer.
Risk factors you can change
Smoking is the most important risk factor for bladder cancer. Smokers are at least 3 times as likely to get bladder cancer as nonsmokers. Smoking causes about half of all bladder cancers in both men and women.
Certain industrial chemicals have been linked with bladder cancer. Chemicals called aromatic amines, such as benzidine and beta-naphthylamine, which are sometimes used in the dye industry, can cause bladder cancer.
Workers in other industries that use certain organic chemicals also may have a higher risk of bladder cancer. Industries carrying higher risks include makers of rubber, leather, textiles, and paint products as well as printing companies. Other workers with an increased risk of developing bladder cancer include painters, machinists, printers, hairdressers (probably because of heavy exposure to hair dyes), and truck drivers (likely because of exposure to diesel fumes).
Cigarette smoking and workplace exposures can act together to cause bladder cancer. Smokers who also work with cancer-causing chemicals have an especially high risk of bladder cancer.
Certain medicines or herbal supplements
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), use of the diabetes medicine pioglitazone (Actos) for more than one year may be linked with an increased risk of bladder cancer. This possible link is still an area of active research.
Dietary supplements containing aristolochic acid (mainly in herbs from the Aristolochiafamily) have been linked with an increased risk of urothelial cancers, including bladder cancer.
Arsenic in drinking water
Arsenic in drinking water has been linked with a higher risk of bladder cancer in some parts of the world. The chance of being exposed to arsenic depends on where you live and whether you get your water from a well or from a public water system that meets the standards for low arsenic content. For most Americans, drinking water is not a major source of arsenic.
Not drinking enough fluids
People who drink a lot of fluids, especially water, each day tend to have lower rates of bladder cancer. This might be because they empty their bladders more often, which could keep chemicals from lingering in their bladder.
Risk factors you cannot change
Race and ethnicity
Whites are about twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as African Americans and Hispanics. Asian Americans and American Indians have slightly lower rates of bladder cancer. The reasons for these differences are not well understood.
The risk of bladder cancer increases with age. About 9 out of 10 people with bladder cancer are older than 55.
Bladder cancer is much more common in men than in women.
Chronic bladder irritation and infections
Urinary infections, kidney and bladder stones, bladder catheters left in place a long time, and other causes of chronic bladder irritation have been linked with bladder cancer (especially squamous cell carcinoma of the bladder), but it’s not clear if they actually cause bladder cancer.
Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharziasis), an infection with a parasitic worm that can get into the bladder, is also a risk factor for bladder cancer. In countries where this parasite is common (mainly in Africa and the Middle East), squamous cell cancers of the bladder are seen much more often. This is an extremely rare cause of bladder cancer in the United States.
Personal history of bladder or other urothelial cancer
Urothelial carcinomas can sometimes form in different areas in the bladder, as well as in the lining of the kidney, the ureters, and urethra. Having a cancer in the lining of any part of the urinary tract puts you at higher risk of having another cancer, either in the same area as before, or in another part of the urinary tract. This is true even when the first tumor is removed completely. For this reason, people who have had bladder cancer need careful follow-up to look for new cancers.
Bladder birth defects
Before birth, there is a connection between the belly button and the bladder. This is called the urachus. If part of this connection remains after birth, it could become cancerous. Cancers that start in the urachus are usually adenocarcinomas, which are made up of cancerous gland cells. About one-third of the adenocarcinomas of the bladder start here. However, this is still rare, accounting for less than half of 1% of all bladder cancers.
Another rare birth defect called exstrophy greatly increases a person’s risk of bladder cancer. In bladder exstrophy, both the bladder and the abdominal wall in front of the bladder don’t close completely during fetal development and are fused together. This leaves the inner lining of the bladder exposed outside the body. Surgery soon after birth can close the bladder and abdominal wall (and repair other related defects), but people who have this still have a higher risk for urinary infections and bladder cancer.
Genetics and family history
People who have family members with bladder cancer have a higher risk of getting it themselves. Sometimes this may be because the family members are exposed to the same cancer-causing chemicals (such as those in tobacco smoke). They may also share changes in some genes (like GST and NAT) that make it hard for their bodies to break down certain toxins, which can make them more likely to get bladder cancer.
A small number of people inherit a gene syndrome that increases their risk for bladder cancer. For example:
- A mutation of the retinoblastoma (RB1) gene can cause cancer of the eye in infants, and also increases the risk of bladder cancer.
- Cowden disease, caused by mutations in the PTEN gene, is linked mainly to cancers of the breast and thyroid. People with this disease also have a higher risk of bladder cancer.
- Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, or HNPCC) is linked mainly to colon and endometrial cancer. People with this syndrome might also have an increased risk of bladder cancer (as well as other cancers of the urinary tract).
Prior chemotherapy or radiation therapy
Taking the chemotherapy drug cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) for a long time can irritate the bladder and increase the risk of bladder cancer. People taking this drug are often told to drink plenty of fluids to help protect the bladder from irritation.
People who are treated with radiation to the pelvis are more likely to develop bladder cancer
Signs and Symptoms of Bladder Cancer
Bladder cancer can often be found early because it causes blood in the urine or other urinary symptoms.
Blood in the urineIn most cases, blood in the urine (called hematuria) is the first sign of bladder cancer. Sometimes, there is enough blood to change the color of the urine to orange, pink, or, less often, darker red. Sometimes, the color of the urine is normal but small amounts of blood are found when a urine test (urinalysis) is done because of other symptoms or as part of a general medical checkup.
Blood may be present one day and absent the next, with the urine remaining clear for weeks or months. If a person has bladder cancer, blood eventually reappears.
Usually, the early stages of bladder cancer cause bleeding but little or no pain or other symptoms.
Blood in the urine does not always mean you have bladder cancer. More often it is caused by other things like an infection, benign (non-cancerous) tumors, stones in the kidney or bladder, or other benign kidney diseases. But it’s important to have it checked by a doctor so the cause can be found.
Changes in bladder habits or symptoms of irritation
Bladder cancer can sometimes cause changes in urination, such as:
- Having to urinate more often than usual
- Pain or burning during urination
- Feeling as if you need to go right away, even when the bladder is not full
- Having trouble urinating or having a weak urine stream
These symptoms are also more likely to be caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI), bladder stones, an overactive bladder, or an enlarged prostate (in men). Still, it’s important to have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Symptoms of advanced bladder cancer
Bladder cancers that have grown large enough or have spread to other parts of the body can sometimes cause other symptoms, such as:
- Being unable to urinate
- Lower back pain on one side
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Feeling tired or weak
- Swelling in the feet
- Bone pain
Again, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than bladder cancer, but it’s important to have them checked so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
There are different types of treatment for patients with bladder cancer. Different types of treatment are available for patients with bladder cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Four types of standard treatment are used:
One of the following types of surgery may be done:
- Transurethral resection (TUR) with fulguration: Surgery in which a cystoscope (a thin lighted tube) is inserted into the bladder through the urethra. A tool with a small wire loop on the end is then used to remove the cancer or to burn the tumor away with high-energy electricity. This is known as fulguration.
- Radical cystectomy: Surgery to remove the bladder and any lymph nodes and nearby organs that contain cancer. This surgery may be done when the bladder cancer invades the muscle wall, or when superficial cancer involves a large part of the bladder. In men, the nearby organs that are removed are the prostate and the seminal vesicles. In women, the uterus, the ovaries, and part of the vagina are removed. Sometimes, when the cancer has spread outside the bladder and cannot be completely removed, surgery to remove only the bladder may be done to reduce urinary symptoms caused by the cancer. When the bladder must be removed, the surgeon creates another way for urineto leave the body.
- Partial cystectomy: Surgery to remove part of the bladder. This surgery may be done for patients who have a low-grade tumor that has invaded the wall of the bladder but is limited to one area of the bladder. Because only a part of the bladder is removed, patients are able to urinate normally after recovering from this surgery. This is also called segmental cystectomy.
- Urinary diversion: Surgery to make a new way for the body to store and pass urine.
After the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.
Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. There are two types of radiation therapy:
- External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer.
- Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer.
The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. External radiation therapy is used to treat bladder cancer.
Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). For bladder cancer, regional chemotherapy may be intravesical (put into the bladder through a tube inserted into the urethra). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. Combination chemotherapy is treatment using more than one anticancer drug.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer. This type of cancer treatment is also called biotherapy or biologic therapy.
Want to learn more?
The following are organizations and/or websites dedicated to providing information and education surrounding Bladder Cancer. These organizations are dedicated to research, education, awareness, and/or support. They are listed in Alphabetical order without any preference or prejudice. Listing these organizations is not a recommendation or referral in any regard for seeking treatment or consultation or support for treatment.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Society
Information on this page taken directly from:
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Society