Blood in the urine (hematuria) sometimes is a sign of bladder cancer. Learn about other bladder cancer signs and symptoms and explore treatment options.
Bladder cancer is a common type of cancer that begins in the cells of the bladder. The bladder is a hollow muscular organ in your lower abdomen that stores urine.
Bladder cancer most often begins in the cells (urothelial cells) that line the inside of your bladder. Urothelial cells are also found in your kidneys and the tubes (ureters) that connect the kidneys to the bladder. Urothelial cancer can happen in the kidneys and ureters, too, but it's much more common in the bladder.
Most bladder cancers are diagnosed at an early stage, when the cancer is highly treatable. But even early-stage bladder cancers can come back after successful treatment. For this reason, people with bladder cancer typically need follow-up tests for years after treatment to look for bladder cancer that recurs.
Your urinary system includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. The urinary system removes waste from the body through urine. The kidneys are located toward the back of the upper abdomen. They filter waste and fluid from the blood and produce urine. Urine moves from the kidneys through narrow tubes to the bladder. These tubes are called the ureters. The bladder stores urine until it's time to urinate. Urine leaves the body through another small tube called the urethra.
Bladder cancer signs and symptoms may include:
If you notice that you have discolored urine and are concerned it may contain blood, make an appointment with your doctor to get it checked. Also make an appointment with your doctor if you have other signs or symptoms that worry you.
Bladder cancer begins when cells in the bladder develop changes (mutations) in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains instructions that tell the cell what to do. The changes tell the cell to multiply rapidly and to go on living when healthy cells would die. The abnormal cells form a tumor that can invade and destroy normal body tissue. In time, the abnormal cells can break away and spread (metastasize) through the body.
Different types of cells in your bladder can become cancerous. The type of bladder cell where cancer begins determines the type of bladder cancer. Doctors use this information to determine which treatments may work best for you.
Types of bladder cancer include:
Some bladder cancers include more than one type of cell.
Bladder cancer develops when cells in the bladder begin to grow abnormally, forming a tumor in the bladder.
Factors that may increase bladder cancer risk include:
Although there's no guaranteed way to prevent bladder cancer, you can take steps to help reduce your risk. For instance:
Tests and procedures used to diagnose bladder cancer may include:
Imaging tests. Imaging tests, such as computerized tomography (CT) urogram or retrograde pyelogram, allow your doctor to examine the structures of your urinary tract.
During a CT urogram, a contrast dye injected into a vein in your hand eventually flows into your kidneys, ureters and bladder. X-ray images taken during the test provide a detailed view of your urinary tract and help your doctor identify any areas that might be cancer.
Retrograde pyelogram is an X-ray exam used to get a detailed look at the upper urinary tract. During this test, your doctor threads a thin tube (catheter) through your urethra and into your bladder to inject contrast dye into your ureters. The dye then flows into your kidneys while X-ray images are captured.
After confirming that you have bladder cancer, your doctor may recommend additional tests to determine whether your cancer has spread to your lymph nodes or to other areas of your body.
Tests may include:
Your doctor uses information from these procedures to assign your cancer a stage. The stages of bladder cancer are indicated by Roman numerals ranging from 0 to IV. The lowest stages indicate a cancer that's confined to the inner layers of the bladder and that hasn't grown to affect the muscular bladder wall. The highest stage — stage IV — indicates cancer that has spread to lymph nodes or organs in distant areas of the body
Bladder cancers are further classified based on how the cancer cells appear when viewed through a microscope. This is known as the grade, and your doctor may describe bladder cancer as either low grade or high grade:
Cystoscopy allows a health care provider to view the lower urinary tract to look for problems, such as a bladder stone. Surgical tools can be passed through the cystoscope to treat certain urinary tract conditions.
Treatment options for bladder cancer depend on a number of factors, including the type of cancer, grade of the cancer and stage of the cancer, which are taken into consideration along with your overall health and your treatment preferences.
Bladder cancer treatment may include:
A combination of treatment approaches may be recommended by your doctor and members of your care team.
Approaches to bladder cancer surgery might include:
Transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT). TURBT is a procedure to diagnose bladder cancer and to remove cancers confined to the inner layers of the bladder — those that aren't yet muscle-invasive cancers. During the procedure, a surgeon passes an electric wire loop through a cystoscope and into the bladder. The electric current in the wire is used to cut away or burn away the cancer. Alternatively, a high-energy laser may be used.
Because doctors perform the procedure through the urethra, you won't have any cuts (incisions) in your abdomen.
As part of the TURBT procedure, your doctor may recommend a one-time injection of cancer-killing medication (chemotherapy) into your bladder to destroy any remaining cancer cells and to prevent cancer from coming back. The medication remains in your bladder for a period of time and then is drained.
Cystectomy. Cystectomy is surgery to remove all or part of the bladder. During a partial cystectomy, your surgeon removes only the portion of the bladder that contains a single cancerous tumor.
A radical cystectomy is an operation to remove the entire bladder and the surrounding lymph nodes. In men, radical cystectomy typically includes removal of the prostate and seminal vesicles. In women, radical cystectomy may involve removal of the uterus, ovaries and part of the vagina.
Radical cystectomy can be performed through an incision on the lower portion of the belly or with multiple small incisions using robotic surgery. During robotic surgery, the surgeon sits at a nearby console and uses hand controls to precisely move robotic surgical instruments.
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy treatment for bladder cancer usually involves two or more chemotherapy drugs used in combination.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given:
Radiation therapy uses beams of powerful energy, such as X-rays and protons, to destroy the cancer cells. Radiation therapy for bladder cancer usually is delivered from a machine that moves around your body, directing the energy beams to precise points.
Radiation therapy is sometimes combined with chemotherapy to treat bladder cancer in certain situations, such as when surgery isn't an option or isn't desired.
Immunotherapy is a drug treatment that helps your immune system to fight cancer.
Immunotherapy can be given:
Targeted therapy drugs focus on specific weaknesses present within cancer cells. By targeting these weaknesses, targeted drug treatments can cause cancer cells to die. Your cancer cells may be tested to see if targeted therapy is likely to be effective.
Targeted therapy may be an option for treating advanced bladder cancer when other treatments haven't helped.
In certain situations, people with muscle-invasive bladder cancer who don't want to undergo surgery to remove the bladder may consider trying a combination of treatments instead. Known as trimodality therapy, this approach combines TURBT, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
First, your surgeon performs a TURBT procedure to remove as much of the cancer as possible from your bladder while preserving bladder function. After TURBT, you undergo a regimen of chemotherapy along with radiation therapy.
If, after trying trimodality therapy, not all of the cancer is gone or you have a recurrence of muscle-invasive cancer, your doctor may recommend a radical cystectomy.
Bladder cancer may recur, even after successful treatment. Because of this, people with bladder cancer need follow-up testing for years after successful treatment. What tests you'll have and how often depends on your type of bladder cancer and how it was treated, among other factors.
In general, doctors recommend a test to examine the inside of your urethra and bladder (cystoscopy) every three to six months for the first few years after bladder cancer treatment. After a few years of surveillance without detecting cancer recurrence, you may need a cystoscopy exam only once a year. Your doctor may recommend other tests at regular intervals as well.
People with aggressive cancers may undergo more-frequent testing. Those with less aggressive cancers may undergo testing less often.
During neobladder surgery, a surgeon takes out the existing bladder and forms an internal pouch from part of the intestine. The pouch, called a neobladder, stores urine.
Living with the concern that your bladder cancer may recur can leave you feeling as if you have little control over your future. But while there's no way to ensure that your bladder cancer won't recur, you can take steps to manage the stress.
Over time you'll find what works for you, but until then, you might:
Start by seeing your family doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you, such as blood in your urine. Your doctor may suggest tests and procedures to investigate your signs and symptoms.
If your doctor suspects that you may have bladder cancer, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in treating diseases and conditions of the urinary tract (urologist). In some cases, you may be referred to other specialists, such as doctors who treat cancer (oncologists).
Because there's often a lot of information to discuss, it's a good idea to be well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.
Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For bladder cancer, some basic questions to ask include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions that occur to you.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask: