The bladder is a hollow organ in the lower abdomen. It stores urine, the liquid waste produced by the kidneys. Urine passes through the urinary system, from each kidney into the bladder through a tube called a ureter.

An outer layer of muscle surrounds the inner lining of the bladder. When the bladder is full, the muscles in the bladder wall can tighten to allow urination. Urine leaves the bladder through another tube, the urethra. Bladder cancer is a disease in which malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the bladder.

Bladder Cancer: Who's at Risk?

No one knows the exact causes of bladder cancer. People who get bladder cancer are more likely than other people to have certain risk factors. A risk factor is something that increases a person's chance of developing the disease. Still, most people with known risk factors do not get bladder cancer, and many who do get this disease have none of these factors. Doctors can seldom explain why one person gets this cancer and another does not. Studies have found the following risk factors for bladder cancer:

  • Age
    The chance of getting bladder cancer goes up as people get older. People under 40 rarely get this disease.
  • Tobacco
    The use of tobacco is a major risk factor. Cigarette smokers are two to three times more likely than nonsmokers to get bladder cancer. Pipe and cigar smokers are also at increased risk.
  • Occupation
    Some workers have a higher risk of getting bladder cancer because of carcinogens in the workplace. Workers in the rubber, chemical, and leather industries are at risk. So are hairdressers, machinists, metal workers, printers, painters, textile workers, and truck drivers.
  • Infections
    Being infected with certain parasites increases the risk of bladder cancer. These parasites are common in tropical areas but not in the United States.
  • Treatment with Cyclophosphamide or Arsenic
    These drugs are used to treat cancer and some other conditions. They raise the risk of bladder cancer.
  • Race
    Whites get bladder cancer twice as often as African Americans and Hispanics. The lowest rates are among Asians.
  • Gender
    Men are two to three times more likely than women to get bladder cancer.
  • Family History
    People with family members who have bladder cancer are more likely to get the disease. Researchers are studying changes in certain genes that may increase the risk of bladder cancer.
  • Personal History of Bladder Cancer
    People who have had bladder cancer have an increased chance of getting the disease again.

Symptoms of Bladder Cancer

Caregivers should look for these symptoms of bladder cancer in their elderly mothers and fathers. Common symptoms of bladder cancer include:

  • Blood in the urine (making the urine slightly rusty to deep red)
  • Pain during urination
  • Frequent urination, or feeling the need to urinate without results. These symptoms are not sure signs of bladder cancer. It could be some form of incontinence.

Infections, benign tumors, bladder stones, or other problems also can cause these symptoms. Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor so that the doctor can diagnose and treat any problem as early as possible. People with symptoms like these may see their family doctor or a urologist, a doctor who specializes in diseases of the urinary system.

Diagnosing Bladder Cancer

If an elderly or senior parent has symptoms that suggest bladder cancer, the doctor may check general signs of health and may order lab tests. The person may have one or more of the following cancer screening procedures.

  • Physical exam
    The doctor feels the abdomen and pelvis for tumors. The physical exam may include a rectal or vaginal exam.
  • Urine tests
    The laboratory checks the urine for blood, cancer cells, and other signs of disease. Intravenous pyelogram The doctor injects dye into a blood vessel. The dye collects in the urine, making the bladder show up on x-rays.
  • Cystoscopy
    The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (cystoscope) to look directly into the bladder. The doctor inserts the cystoscope into the bladder through the urethra to examine the lining of the bladder. The patient may need anesthesia for this procedure.

    The doctor can remove samples of tissue with the cystoscope. A pathologist then examines the tissue under a microscope. The removal of tissue to look for cancer cells is called a biopsy. In many cases, a biopsy is the only sure way to tell whether cancer is present. For a small number of patients, the doctor removes the entire cancerous area during the biopsy. For these patients, bladder cancer is diagnosed and treated in a single procedure.

Stages of Bladder Cancer

If bladder cancer is diagnosed, the doctor needs to know the stage, or extent, of the disease to plan the best treatment. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has invaded the bladder wall, whether the disease has spread, and if so, to what parts of the body. The doctor may determine the stage of bladder cancer at the time of diagnosis, or may need to give the patient more tests. Such tests may include imaging tests: CT scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), sonogram, intravenous pyelogram, bone scan, or chest x-ray. Sometimes staging is not complete until the patient has surgery.

Disease Stages

  • Stage 0
    The cancer cells are found only on the surface of the inner lining of the bladder. The doctor may call this superficial cancer or carcinoma in situ.
  • Stage I
    The cancer cells are found deep in the inner lining of the bladder. They have not spread to the muscle of the bladder.
  • Stage II
    The cancer cells have spread to the muscle of the bladder.
  • Stage III
    The cancer cells have spread through the muscular wall of the bladder to the layer of tissue surrounding the bladder. The cancer cells may have spread to the prostate (in men) or to the uterus or vagina (in women).
  • Stage IV
    The cancer extends to the wall of the abdomen or to the wall of the pelvis. The cancer cells may have spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body far away from the bladder, such as the lungs.

Treatments for Bladder Cancer

Many caregivers and their elderly parent with bladder cancer want to take an active part in decisions about their medical care. Here are the treatment options that seniors and their caregivers can expect after the elderly parent is diagnosed with bladder cancer.

Surgical Procedures

Surgery is a common treatment for bladder cancer. The type of surgery depends largely on the stage and grade of the tumor. The doctor can explain each type of surgery and discuss which is most suitable for the patient. The various types of surgical treatment are detailed below.

  • Transurethral Resection
    The doctor may treat early (superficial) bladder cancer with transurethral resection (TUR). During TUR, the doctor inserts a cystoscope into the bladder through the urethra. The doctor then uses a tool with a small wire loop on the end to remove the cancer and to burn away any remaining cancer cells with an electric current. (This is called fulguration.) The patient may need to be in the hospital and may need anesthesia. After TUR, patients may also have chemotherapy or biological therapy.
  • Radical Cystectomy
    For invasive bladder cancer, the most common type of surgery is radical cystectomy. The doctor also chooses this type of surgery when superficial cancer involves a large part of the bladder. Radical cystectomy is the removal of the entire bladder, the nearby lymph nodes, part of the urethra, and the nearby organs that may contain cancer cells. In men, the nearby organs that are removed are the prostate, seminal vesicles, and part of the vas deferens. In women, the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, and part of the vagina are removed.
  • Segmental Cystectomy
    In some cases, the doctor may remove only part of the bladder in a procedure called segmental cystectomy. The doctor chooses this type of surgery when a patient has a low-grade cancer that has invaded the bladder wall in just one area. Sometimes, when the cancer has spread outside the bladder and cannot be completely removed, the surgeon removes the bladder but does not try to get rid of all the cancer. Or, the surgeon does not remove the bladder but makes another way for urine to leave the body. The goal of the surgery may be to relieve urinary blockage or other symptoms caused by the cancer. When the entire bladder is removed, the surgeon makes another way to collect urine. The patient may wear a bag outside the body, or the surgeon may create a pouch inside the body with part of the intestine.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Like surgery, radiation therapy is local therapy. It affects cancer cells only in the treated area. A small number of patients may have radiation therapy before surgery to shrink the tumor. Others may have it after surgery to kill cancer cells that may remain in the area. Sometimes, patients who cannot have surgery have radiation therapy instead. Doctors use the two types of radiation therapy explained below to treat bladder cancer.

  • External Radiation
    A large machine outside the body aims radiation at the tumor area. Most people receiving external radiation are treated 5 days a week for 5 to 7 weeks as an outpatient. This schedule helps protect healthy cells and tissues by spreading out the total dose of radiation. Treatment may be shorter when external radiation is given along with radiation implants.
  • Internal Radiation
    The doctor places a small container of a radioactive substance into the bladder through the urethra or through an incision in the abdomen. The patient stays in the hospital for several days during this treatment. To protect others from radiation exposure, patients may not be able to have visitors or may have visitors for only a short period of time while the implant is in place. Once the implant is removed, no radioactivity is left in the body. Some patients with bladder cancer receive both kinds of radiation therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The doctor may use one drug or a combination of drugs. For patients with superficial bladder cancer, the doctor may use intravesical chemotherapy after removing the cancer with TUR. This is local therapy. The doctor inserts a tube (catheter) through the urethra and puts liquid drugs in the bladder through the catheter. The drugs remain in the bladder for several hours. They mainly affect the cells in the bladder.

Usually, the patient has this treatment once a week for several weeks. Sometimes, the treatments continue once or several times a month for up to a year. If the cancer has deeply invaded the bladder or spread to lymph nodes or other organs, the doctor may give drugs through a vein. This treatment is called intravenous chemotherapy. It is systemic therapy, meaning that the drugs flow through the bloodstream to nearly every part of the body. The drugs are usually given in cycles so that a recovery period follows every treatment period.

The patient may have chemotherapy alone or combined with surgery, radiation therapy, or both. Usually chemotherapy is an outpatient treatment given at the hospital, clinic, or at the doctor's office. However, depending on which drugs are given and the patient's general health, the patient may need a short hospital stay.

Biological Therapy

Biological therapy (also called immunotherapy) uses the body's natural ability (immune system) to fight cancer. Biological therapy is most often used after TUR for superficial bladder cancer. This helps prevent the cancer from coming back. The doctor may use intravesical biological therapy with BCG solution. BCG solution contains live, weakened bacteria. The bacteria stimulate the immune system to kill cancer cells in the bladder. The doctor uses a catheter to put the solution in the bladder. The patient must hold the solution in the bladder for about 2 hours. BCG treatment is usually done once a week for 6 weeks.


The National Cancer Institute conducts and supports research, training, health information dissemination, and other programs with respect to the cause, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of cancer, rehabilitation from cancer, and the continuing care of cancer patients and the families of cancer patients.