Can Women Get Bladder Cancer?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: November 2019.

In the United States, bladder cancer is much less common in women than in men. In fact, bladder cancer is not one of the top 10 most common cancers among women. According to the American Cancer Society, about 18,700 women in the United States will be diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2019. This compares to an about 61,700 new cases of bladder cancer in men.1

Which women are more at risk?

The chance of getting bladder cancer is much higher among older women than younger women. It is usually diagnosed in people who are over the age of 55. Women are diagnosed at an average age of 73.2

While bladder cancer is more common in men, women often have worse outcomes. Women, especially African American women, tend to be diagnosed when their cancer is more advanced and thus harder to treat. Rates of bladder cancer are increasing in women.3

What causes bladder cancer?

Bladder cancer develops when a change in certain cells in the bladder causes those cells to grow out of control. These cells can then gather to form a mass called a tumor. Researchers believe that some women are more likely to develop bladder cancer due to a certain gene that is passed through their family.

The largest known risk factor for bladder cancer is smoking. Smokers carry 4 to 7 times the risk of developing bladder cancer as non-smokers. One of the best ways to reduce the risk of getting bladder cancer is never to smoke, or to stop smoking. Other risk factors for bladder cancer include chemical exposure and chronic bladder problems.2

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of bladder cancer are:2

  • Blood in the urine
  • Frequent or urgent need to urinate
  • Painful or burning during urination
  • Feeling the need to urinate, but not being able to pass urine
  • Lower back pain on 1 side of the body

These symptoms can be very similar to the symptoms of a bladder infection or a urinary tract infection (UTI). Blood in the urine may be confused with menstruation or menopause. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms, or if you take antibiotics for a bladder infection or UTI and the symptoms remain. Bladder cancer treatments works best when the cancer is found early.3

Differences in treating women and men

Research has shown that women are diagnosed with bladder cancer at later stages than men.3,4 Research also shows that bladder cancer in women can be more difficult to treat when it is diagnosed later. Researchers are still trying to understand why, but there may be several reasons for this.

First, women have different anatomy in the lower urinary tract than men. This by itself may put women at a higher risk of worse bladder cancer outcomes. For example, men and women have different types of urethras and different muscle structures around the bladder. Another reason may be that bladder cancer in women is often misdiagnosed as a UTI, menstruation, or menopausal bleeding.1-4

Treating non-invasive cancer

Treatment for bladder cancer depends on where the tumor is located and whether the tumor has spread into other parts of the body.

In people who are diagnosed with non-muscle invasive bladder cancer, the tumor is located in the lining of the bladder, and has not grown into the muscles of the bladder wall. Treatment to remove the tumor often involves a surgery called transurethral resection (TURBT). Some people will also need chemotherapy injected directly into the bladder. The goal of this treatment is to kill any remaining cancer cells and help keep cancer cells from growing back.2

Treating muscle-invasive cancer

People who are diagnosed with muscle-invasive bladder cancer have bladder tumors that have grown into the wall of the bladder. Treatment for this type of cancer may involve surgery to remove part of the bladder (partial cystectomy). Other people may need radical cystectomy, in which the whole bladder and nearby lymph nodes are removed. Other nearby organs affected by the cancer, such as the ovaries and the uterus, may also need to be removed.

During this type of surgery, the surgeon will create another way for the body to store and pass urine. This is called a urinary diversion. Radiation and chemotherapy may also be used to help kill the cancer cells and keep them from growing back.2

New treatments

For some patients with a genetic mutation found in some bladder cancers (FGFR), targeted therapy may be an option. The drug Balversa (generic name erdafitinib) was approved in April 2019 to treat certain bladder cancers. This drug focuses on tumor cells with certain genetic changes, making it more specialized and targeted. This helps reduce damage to other, healthy cells and increases effectiveness.5

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