Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors
Bladder cancer is a form of cancer affecting the internal lining of the bladder. Bladder cancer can be superficial or invasive.
What is going on in the body?
Cancer occurs when a cell undergoes changes that cause it to grow and multiply uncontrollably. Eventually a tumor will form. More than one tumor in the bladder may develop at the same time. If not treated, a tumor will grow through the bladder wall. It may then spread to structures around the bladder. Cells from the tumor can also enter the bloodstream and spread to distant parts of the body, a process known as metastasis.
What are the causes and risks of the disease?
Use of tobacco products, smoking in particular, may lead to bladder cancer. The cancer-causing chemicals are absorbed in the lungs and then excreted into the urine. The lining of the bladder is exposed to concentrated amounts of these poisons for long periods. Other chemicals, such as aniline dyes, are known to cause similar damage.
The following occupations are associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer:
chemical or petroleum workers
drill press operators
tire and rubber workers
Other known risk factors for bladder cancer include the following:
certain types of chronic bladder infections
family history of bladder cancer
Suspected risk factors include:
frequent urinary tract infections
high dietary cholesterol
highly chlorinated drinking water
pain medicines containing phenacetin
water contaminated with pesticides
Symptoms & Signs
What are the signs and symptoms of the disease?
Blood in the urine is often the only sign of bladder cancer. Sometimes the blood is not visible. It can only be detected when a urine sample is tested. Some people will have symptoms similar to a urinary tract infection, such as painful urination and an urgent need to urinate frequently. If the cancer has metastasized, then the symptoms will be related to the area affected.
Diagnosis & Tests
How is the disease diagnosed?
Often a person who notices blood in the urine will see a healthcare provider. Diagnosis begins with a medical history and physical exam. A urine sample will be checked for cancer cells. An X-ray of the bladder, called intravenous urogram or IVU, is routinely part of the diagnostic work-up. The provider may also do a cystoscopy, looking at the inside of the bladder with a thin, lighted tube.
If a tumor is seen, the provider will do a biopsy to take a piece of it for examination. If the cancer is confirmed, more surgery may be necessary to investigate how deep the cancer has grown into the bladder wall. Other studies such as CT scans may be done to determine the extent of the problem. This is known as staging.
Prevention & Expectations
What can be done to prevent the disease?
Avoiding exposure to tobacco products will help prevent this and other cancers. When working with chemicals at work or at home, a person should take precautions to avoid contamination.
What are the long-term effects of the disease?
Five-year survival rates for early bladder cancer are as high as 90%. Early detection saves lives. Bladder cancer is fatal if not successfully treated.
What are the risks to others?
Bladder cancer is not contagious and poses no risk to others.
Treatment & Monitoring
What are the treatments for the disease?
The main treatment for bladder cancer is surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Removing the entire bladder is not always necessary.
Certain chemotherapy medicines can be instilled into the bladder. In some cases, a biological response modifier, such as Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG), can also be instilled into the bladder. The entire surface of the bladder will be treated. Any remaining cancers will be bathed in the medicines. Often this treatment is successful and no further surgery is necessary.
Sometimes the entire bladder must be removed. When this happens, urine will be diverted to an external collection pouch in a procedure known as a urostomy. If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, then chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be used. Advanced bladder cancer is not usually curable.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Surgery to remove superficial tumors followed by instillation of medicines can be uncomfortable. The person will be tired. The discomfort will resolve when the treatments are completed. Other side effects can be easily managed and will be specific to the medicines used. If the bladder is removed, the person will need to adjust to the appliance. With support and understanding, the person can return to a normal life. For persons with advanced disease, the chemotherapy may be rigorous but the side effects are manageable.
What happens after treatment for the disease?
A person who has early stage bladder cancer will have the inside of the bladder examined at intervals, along with urine testing. Over time, the frequency of exams will decrease if the cancer does not return. People with advanced cancer will be followed with CT scans and other X-rays to determine the response of the cancer to the treatment.
How is the disease monitored?
In the early stages, examining the inside of the bladder is the most effective way to monitor response. Urine samples can indicate if cancer cells have shed. For later stage disease, diagnostic studies such as X-rays are the most helpful. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.