What Is Bladder Cancer?

An overview of causes, symptoms, and treatment

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Bladder cancer is a disease that affects the bladder, an elastic organ that is responsible for storing urine that is released by the kidneys. It is the fifth most common type of cancer in the U.S. and when diagnosed in the early stages, it is highly treatable.

There are several types of bladder cancer, some being more common then others. The most common type of bladder cancer is urothelial carcinoma, accounting for about 90 percent of bladder cancer cases.

The remaining types of bladder cancer are considered rare. They include squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, small cell carcinoma, leiomyosarcoma, lymphoma, and melanoma.

4 Common Symptoms to Know

Some of the common symptoms of bladder cancer include:

  • blood in the urine, either seen by the naked eye or microscopically
  • painful urination
  • frequent urination
  • feeling as if you need to pee, even right after you just did

​Early detection is key with bladder cancer, so if you feel any of the above symptoms, be sure to consult with your doctor right away.

What to Expect When You Go to the Doctor

If your doctor suspects that something may be wrong with your bladder, one of the first tests done will be a urine culture and urinalysis. Your doctor will want to see if an infection is the underlying cause of symptoms.

A urine culture looks for the presence of bacteria in the urine, while urinalysis checks for the presence of blood.

Both a urinalysis and culture require you to provide a sample of urine, either by urinating in a cup or by catheter. Note: If you are being treated for a urinary tract infection or cystitis and are not feeling better after taking all of your medication, it is important that you let your doctor know.

Your doctor may also want to check your urine for the presence of tumor markers, proteins that are increased in the urine of people with bladder cancer.

If bladder cancer is suspected, your doctor will want to get a better look at your bladder. This can be achieved through a cystoscopy, a procedure where the doctor inserts a thin, lighted tube equipped with a microscopic camera into the urethra to the bladder. The camera projects live feed to a monitor allowing the doctor to see see inside the bladder. If any suspicious areas are found, a biopsy can be done during a cystoscopy. A biopsy is the removal of small amount of bladder tissue to be examined further for the presence of cancer. It is the only way to confirm if cancer is present.

Bladder Cancer Treatment

Once bladder cancer is confirmed and the type and stage have been identified, a treatment plan is developed. Treatment depends on the type and stage of bladder cancer, as well as your general health.

Surgery is the most common type of treatment for bladder cancer. Surgery can be as minor as removing small superficial tumors during a cystoscopy to surgery to remove the entire bladder (cystectomy). Surgery may be done alone or in conjunction with chemotherapy or radiation.

Chemotherapy may be recommended for both early and advanced stages of bladder cancer, but they may be administered differently. Chemotherapy treatment for those with early stage bladder cancer is delivered directly into the bladder. This is called intravesical chemotherapy. More advanced cases of bladder cancer that have spread to beyond the bladder are treated by standard intravenous (IV) chemotherapy. This type of treatment uses certain types high energy beams of radiation to shrink tumors or eliminate cancer cells.

Radiation therapy may also be prescribed to treat the disease or to ease symptoms caused by the bladder cancer (palliatively).

This type of treatment uses certain types high energy beams of radiation to shrink tumors or eliminate cancer cells. Radiation therapy works by damaging a cancer cell's DNA, making it unable to multiply. Although radiation therapy can damage nearby healthy cells, cancer cells are highly sensitive to radiation and typically die when treated. Healthy cells that are damaged during radiation are resilient and are often able to fully recover.

Bladder Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Although researchers cannot pinpoint the exact causes of bladder cancer, several risk factors for the disease have been identified. The greatest risk factor for developing bladder cancer is smoking. When you smoke, the carcinogens are absorbed into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Your blood is then filtered by the kidneys and the waste is then converted into urine, which is released to the bladder to exit the body. Unfortunately, the carcinogens from the tobacco remain in the urine and damage the cells in the bladder, potentially causing cancer. Other risk factors for bladder cancer include:

Occupational exposure to certain chemicals has also been shown to increase the risk of bladder cancer. Chemicals used in making dyes is strongly associated with the development of bladder cancer, as are chemicals called aromatic amines at factories that produce leather, rubber, paint, and other products.

Hair stylists, painters, individuals that work at printing factories, and truck drives also develop bladder cancer at a higher rate than those who work in other industries.

Things You Can Do to Reduce the Risk of Bladder Cancer

Unfortunately, there are no proven methods that guarantee the prevention of bladder cancer. Avoiding the listed risk factors is the only way to decrease the chances of developing bladder cancer:

Quit Smoking or Don't Start

Smoking is the number one risk factor for bladder cancer. As soon as you quit (it's never too late!), your body reaps the benefits of being tobacco free. Quitting smoking is one of your best defenses against bladder cancer. Need help kicking the habit? Visit the Smoking Cessation site.

Be Aware of Your Workplace Chemical Exposure

If you are exposed to fumes, dust and chemicals in the workplace, you have a right to know what you are being exposed to. Talk to your employer about limiting your exposure.

Avoid Dehydration — Drink Plenty of Fluids

Some studies suggest that keeping well hydrated may reduce your risk of developing bladder cancer. The more liquids you intake, the less time toxic substance remain in the system, potentially causing damage.


American Cancer Society. Bladder Cancer: Detailed Guide.