Bladder cancer: the basics

Simply put, bladder cancer is cancer that starts in the bladder. In order to do its job, the bladder has several different types of cells, and cancer can start with abnormal changes in any of those cell types.

The most common type—transitional cell or urothelial carcinoma—starts in the cells that line the inside of the bladder. Other common types include squamous cell carcinoma, which can occur because of frequent bladder infections, and adenocarcinoma, which starts in the glands in and around the bladder.

Who’s at risk for bladder cancer?

Two of the biggest risk factors for bladder cancer are smoking and age—90 percent of bladder cancer diagnoses are in people over age 55. Other risk factors include:

  • Exposure to certain harmful chemicals
  •  Family history of bladder cancer
  •  Chronic bladder infections or bladder stones

Some risk factors can’t be controlled—your genetics can affect your risk for bladder cancer, and men get bladder cancer more often than women. But some risk factors are within your control:

  • Quit smoking
  • Drink lots of water
  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits

There’s no known way to guarantee you’ll never get bladder cancer, but making small, healthy choices every day can reduce your risk—and help protect your overall health.

Early detection is key

It’s important to catch the symptoms of bladder cancer early and treat it quickly. Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these signs or symptoms:

  • Blood in the urine (it may look red, orange or pink)
  • Positive test results for blood in the urine (even if you can’t see it)
  • Pain or burning when urinating
  • Needing to urinate more often
  • Pain in your back or abdomen

Other health problems can cause these same symptoms, so your doctor may order several tests to confirm whether bladder cancer is the cause. These can include:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI, CT scans or other imaging tests

Your doctor may also order a test called a cystoscopy, which involves inserting a tiny, thin tube into the urethra to look at the inside of the bladder and check for any problems. During this test, he or she may take a small tissue sample to check under a microscope and look for cancer cells.

A positive diagnosis… now what?

Treatment plans can vary based on your health, your history and how advanced the cancer is when it’s diagnosed. Treatments can include:

  • Surgery, which can include laparoscopic surgery or robotic-assisted surgery
  • Radiation
  • Chemotherapy
  • Biological therapy, which uses your immune system to fight cancer cells

Sometimes, the bladder must be removed entirely to stop the cancer. If this is the case, you’ll have a small tube called a catheter inserted that drains the urine. Researchers are working on new ways to reconstruct or replace the bladder when it has to be removed.

Diagnosis and treatment for bladder cancer often involves a multidisciplinary team of oncologists, surgeons and other specialists. Finding a team you trust can make a world of difference in your care.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.