What is bladder cancer?
Your bladder is a grapefruit-sized organ responsible for storing urine produced by the kidneys. It connects to the kidneys by two thin tubes called ureters. This small but mighty organ is important — it works with your brain to tell you when it’s time to “go.”
Bladder cancer develops when normal, healthy cells in the bladder begin to grow and function differently. These cancerous cells can build up and form a mass called a tumor, which exists as a lump inside the body and can spread.
What are the types of bladder cancer?
There are three main types of bladder cancer:
- Urothelial carcinoma – Starting in the urinary tract, this is the most common type of bladder cancer, accounting for up to 90% of all cases.
- Adenocarcinoma – This rare type of bladder cancer affects the cells in the lining of the bladder.
- Squamous cell carcinoma – This is the rarest type of bladder cancer, and more aggressive than the others. It tends to form after long-term bladder irritation and can be caused by repeated bladder infections or having a catheter.
What are some symptoms of bladder cancer?
A main symptom, blood in the urine, means bladder cancer can be caught in its earlier stages, when it is most treatable. Different stages of bladder cancer produce different symptoms.
Symptoms of bladder cancer include:
- Blood in your urine
- Painful or burning urination
- Frequent urination
- Having a strong urge to “go,” but not being able to
Having any of these symptoms does not mean you have bladder cancer, but can indicate other conditions, such as an infection. It’s important to make an appointment with your doctor to rule out any health issues.
What are the risk factors for bladder cancer?
Certain lifestyle choices and risk factors increase your chance of developing bladder cancer. They include:
- Smoking: Tobacco use, including smokeless tobacco, cigarettes and pipes, is the single largest risk for bladder cancer.
- Family history: If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with bladder cancer, you are at a higher risk.
- Age and gender: Your risk of bladder cancer increases as you age, with most people being diagnosed after age 55. Men are more likely to develop bladder cancer than women.
- Chronic bladder problems: Related health issues, such as repeated bladder infections, bladder stones and irritation from catheter use, can increase your risk of bladder cancer.
- Race: Caucasian men have a higher chance of developing bladder cancer than African American men.
- Other risk factors: Other risk factors that can raise the risk of developing bladder cancer include:
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Environmental exposure to certain industrial chemicals
- Previous radiation exposure (usually due to chemotherapy or radiation treatment)
How is bladder cancer diagnosed?
Detecting bladder cancer is the first step in treating it — so you can get back to doing what you love.
Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for cancer of the bladder include:
- Blood or urine tests – These tests can rule out any issues with your bladder that may be unrelated to cancer, such as a bladder infection.
- Cystoscopy – During this procedure, your doctor inserts a thin tube with a special lens into your urethra. This lets them see the inside of your bladder and surrounding areas to look for cancerous cells.
- Urine cytology – Your doctor analyzes your urine sample beneath a microscope to check for cancerous cells.
- Biopsy – During a biopsy, your doctor removes a small sample of tissue with a thin needle or during a surgical procedure. Then they examine the tissue under a microscope to find out if it contains cancerous cells (also called malignant cells).
- Imaging tests – Imaging tests, such MRIs, CT scans and PET scans, are used to produce detailed pictures of the inside your bladder and urethra.
These show the size of tumors and whether they have grown, shrunk or spread.
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Bladder cancer treatment
At Geisinger, our team of highly trained bladder cancer specialists includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse navigators and support staff who come together to develop a personalized plan around you for treating your bladder cancer.
Depending on the type, location and stage of your cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended.
Surgery is a common method of treating bladder cancer. The latest techniques to treat bladder cancer, including minimally invasive surgery, offer you the best outcomes and path for healing. Surgical procedures may remove a portion or the bladder or the entire organ, when necessary.
Surgery is also a common treatment option for cancer that has metastasized, or spread, to other areas of the body.
Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to shrink or slow the growth of tumors. Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in a pill form.
The timing of your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that still remains in the area and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which together are known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
At Geisinger, your team includes doctors called medical oncologists who specialize in chemotherapy. You also have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Keeping you comfortable while you have treatment is important to us. Our state-of-the-art clinics — many recently renovated — offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you relax during treatment.
Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Our board-certified cancer doctors and highly skilled clinical team deliver conventional radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send radiation to the tumor from outside the body
- Internal radiation, which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the tumor to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatments. This includes cone beam CT scans to accurately view the tumor and target it during treatment.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), which uses precise beams of radiation to focus high doses of radiation shaped just around the tumor, with very little damage to surrounding healthy tissues
Bladder cancer care at Geisinger
Cancer is unique to each person, which is why your cancer care team gets to know you along your journey. While some of our cancer specialists are trained in treating specific cancers, our entire team works together to help you fight your cancer — every step of the way.
Our cancer specialists are dedicated to providing innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. We offer:
- The knowledge you need – Your cancer team is powered by surgeons, doctors and specialists with years of training and experience. Their expertise has been honed by treating many people with bladder cancer every year. And their focus is on delivering the care best suited to your needs.
- Care from all sides – Cancer isn’t simple, so we put all our best minds to work on it. Your care team is multidisciplinary, which means it has many physicians from different specialties who come together to create a personalized treatment plan for you. That means you can see your care team in one location, all during the same visit.
- Care designed for you, where you live – With locations throughout northeast, central and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our bladder cancer specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far. We’ll work with you to develop a personalized bladder cancer care plan based on your individual needs.
- Leading-edge clinical trials – Our cancer research and clinical trials give you access to new treatments before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help you get better even if standard approaches haven’t worked. Find a clinical trial.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Our cancer genetics programs determine whether you face a higher-than-normal cancer risk. Special programs such as MyCode®, which are only available at Geisinger, detect the earliest signs of certain cancers so you can start treatment right away. Our care and guidance may even help you avoid a cancer diagnosis. Learn more or sign up for MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program – Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.