Bladder Cancer FAQs

A bladder cancer diagnosis can be stressful and overwhelming, and sifting through information to get answers is difficult. More than 700,000 people are living with bladder cancer in the United States according to the National Cancer Institute. If you have been diagnosed or know a friend or family member who has, here are some answers to frequently asked questions about bladder cancer:

What is bladder cancer?
What are the symptoms of bladder cancer?
Who is at risk for bladder cancer?
What are the survival rates for someone diagnosed with bladder cancer?
How is bladder cancer diagnosed?
What does bladder cancer treatment involve?
Can bladder cancer come back after treatment?

What is bladder cancer?

The body is made up of cells that grow and divide to create new cells to keep the body healthy. As normal cells get old or become damaged, they die and are replaced by new cells. Cancer develops when some cells don’t die and instead divide at higher rates than normal, forming large masses known as tumors. These tumors are made of cancerous cells that can continue to replicate and grow and even spread to surrounding parts of the body. Bladder cancer develops when cancerous cells grow in the urinary bladder, which is part of the body’s urinary system. The function of the bladder is to store urine until a person urinates.

What are the symptoms of bladder cancer?

When bladder cancer develops, symptoms such as blood in the urine or changes in urination habits can indicate that something is wrong. Blood in the urine is the most common symptom of bladder cancer, but it can also be a symptom of many other non-cancer related causes. If blood is found in the urine, it’s important to report the symptom to a doctor for further exploration. Changes in urination habits such as the need to urinate more urgently or frequently can also be a sign on bladder cancer. These symptoms are less common but should still be assessed. Patients with advanced bladder cancer can experience other symptoms such as back or bone pain, swelling in the feet, fatigue, and decreased appetite, and weight loss.

Who is at risk for bladder cancer?

There are some factors that can increase a person’s risk of developing bladder cancer compared to someone who does not have those risk factors. People who are older than age 55 are more likely to develop bladder cancer than those who are younger. Men are also at a higher risk than women for developing bladder cancer. Other risk factors include exposure to harmful chemicals either at home or in the workplace. Smoking or tobacco use of any kind can increase someone’s risk of developing bladder cancer. Work in industries that involve chemicals like processed paint, metal, dyes, or petroleum can also increase the risk.

What are the survival rates for someone diagnosed?

Bladder cancer prognoses and survival rates can vary depending on the stage and grade of the cancer. Survival rates are calculated based on large numbers of people, but they don’t indicate how well a treatment will work for any individual person. Bladder cancer survival rates are generally higher than many other cancers which is a positive sign for many who have been diagnosed. Experts use a 5-year survival rate as a marker to measure cancer prognoses, but it’s important to note that many people live beyond the 5-year marker and statistics cannot predict outcomes for any one person! The average 5-year survival rate for anyone who has bladder cancer, of any stage, is around 77%.

How is bladder cancer diagnosed?

Because bladder cancer screening is not generally recommended, individuals usually undergo testing for bladder cancer after experiencing symptoms like blood in the urine or changes in urination habits. Diagnosing bladder cancer is a multi-step process. The first step is typically a visit to a primary health care provider to review a patient’s medical history and conduct a physical exam. Next, urine tests can be used to test for infection or the presence or cancerous cells. Based on these results, a few procedures such an an examination under anesthesia or a cystoscopy (where a scope is inserted through the urethra to view the inside of the bladder) may be used. If these tests confirm the presence of bladder cancer, imaging tests such as intravenous pyelograms or CT scans may be used to learn more about the cancer.

What does bladder cancer treatment involve?

The types of available treatments for bladder cancer will depend on the stage and grade of the cancer. Surgery is a common treatment, and there are many types of surgery that could be used, including a transurethral resection of bladder tumor and a partial or radical cystectomy. These surgeries are used to remove tumors within the bladder or remove part or all of the bladder to prevent the cancer from spreading. Radiation therapy can also be used to kill cancer cells, and it is usually used in combination with other treatment.

Another common treatment is BCG immunotherapy which is a treatment delivered directly into the bladder and activate’s the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. Other types of immunotherapy are generally used to treat more advanced or metastatic stages of bladder cancer. Chemotherapy is another treatment sometimes used to treat bladder cancer. Intravesical chemotherapy is delivered directly into the bladder through a catheter, and systemic chemotherapy is injected into a muscle or vein. Chemotherapy is also often used in combination with other treatments.

Can bladder cancer come back after treatment?

Some people who have been treated for bladder cancer can develop recurrent bladder cancer which means that bladder cancer cells have started to grow again despite treatment. In bladder cancer, recurrence is not uncommon, so part of standard bladder cancer treatment is ongoing surveillance and monitoring even after a person is cancer-free. Regular check-ups or follow-ups are usually scheduled every three to six months to look for signs that the bladder cancer has returned. Fears of recurrence or anxiety after bladder cancer are normal, but it’s important to communicate with your healthcare provider and keep up with follow-up appointments so that bladder recurrences can be caught early and treated effectively.

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