Bladder Cancer

Medical oncologist Dean Bajorin

If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with bladder cancer, you may face a lot of difficult questions. Where should you go for care? What are your treatment options? How can you keep your quality of life?

Reading this guide is a good place to begin finding answers. From here, you can visit other sections of our bladder cancer guide for more in-depth information.

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What is bladder cancer?

Bladder cancer is a disease that usually begins in the cells that line the inside of the bladder. It typically affects people older than 70 and occurs more often in men. Bladder cancer is the fifth most common form of cancer overall and the fourth most common among men.

Bladder cancer usually responds well to treatment when diagnosed early. However, people who have been successfully treated for bladder cancer should be monitored afterward. Bladder cancer can return even years later.

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What are the types of bladder cancer?

Most bladder cancers — about 90 percent — begin in the cells on the surface of the bladder’s inner lining. This type of cancer is called urothelial carcinoma (also called transitional cell carcinoma). Most urothelial carcinoma is non-muscle invasive. That means the cancer stays within the bladder’s inner lining. Less common types of bladder cancer include squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, and small cell carcinoma. These types can develop in the inner lining as a result of chronic irritation and inflammation. They usually grow into the muscle of the bladder over time.

Learn more about the types of bladder cancer.

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What are the symptoms of bladder cancer?

In most cases, the first sign of bladder cancer is blood in the urine. Other symptoms may include feeling pain or burning during urination or a change in urination habits. This can include frequent urination or a need to go but being unable to pass urine. More-advanced bladder cancer may involve lower back pain on one side, feeling tired or weak, or having no appetite and losing weight. All of these symptoms may be caused by something other than bladder cancer, but it’s important to have them checked out.

Learn more about the symptoms of bladder cancer.

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What are the risk factors for bladder cancer?

Tobacco use is by far the biggest risk factor for developing bladder cancer. People who smoke cigarettes are up to four times more likely than nonsmokers to develop the disease. Studies have shown that smoking is responsible for approximately 50 percent of bladder cancers.

People who work in the textile, dye, rubber, leather, paint, or printing industries may also be at an increased risk of bladder cancer.

Learn more about the risk factors for bladder cancer.

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How is bladder cancer diagnosed?

Doctors use several tests to diagnose bladder cancer. One common method is a cystoscopy. In this procedure, a small tube with a camera is inserted into the urethra (the duct through which urine leaves the body) and slowly moved into the bladder. A doctor can then examine the lining and take a sample, called a biopsy. Another method is a urine cytology. This test analyzes a urine sample to see if it contains tumor cells. Doctors also use a variety of imaging tests to examine the urinary tract.

Learn more about how bladder cancer is diagnosed.

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What are the treatments for bladder cancer?

We may recommend surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of these. We always want to preserve the urinary and sexual function of people with bladder cancer. Sometimes the bladder needs to be removed. This is called a cystectomy. When we do this surgery, we can often create a new bladder at the same time. This is called a neobladder. It eliminates the need for a pouch outside the body that collects urine. In addition, there are a growing number of immunotherapy treatments for bladder cancer. These therapies help unleash the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. The chance of surviving bladder cancer is very good when it is caught early. Treatments also can be effective for bladder cancer that has advanced.

Learn more about treatments for bladder cancer.

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Why should I choose Memorial Sloan Kettering for bladder cancer treatment?

Memorial Sloan Kettering’s team of bladder cancer experts delivers the highest quality compassionate cancer care. We take into account each individual’s needs and develop a personalized treatment plan.

At MSK, we offer:

  • A multidisciplinary team of experts that is among the most experienced in the field. The team includes world-class specialists in surgery, chemotherapy, radiology, pathology, and nursing.
  • Close collaboration among these experts. Our team meets regularly to discuss each of the people we care for. We draw on our vast experience to determine the best course of treatment. For example, our surgeons and oncologists work closely together to ensure that people who need chemotherapy before surgery begin this treatment as soon as possible. Starting care right away has been shown to produce better outcomes for our patients.
  • Skilled and specialized surgeons. Our surgeons use a variety of advanced approaches to remove bladder tumors. We take every measure to preserve urinary and sexual function. For many people with early-stage bladder cancer, we can successfully treat the disease with minimally invasive procedures, including robot-assisted surgery.
MSK patient Mark McIntosh and surgeon Bernard Bochner
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Meet Mark McIntosh, who is disease-free and back to work as a actor after being treated for bladder cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
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  • Pioneering methods for preserving bladders or reconstructing bladders that have been partly or wholly removed. We are experienced in doing a specialized procedure to create a new bladder, called a neobladder. This innovative approach has greatly enhanced quality of life for many people with bladder cancer. It often eliminates the need for a pouch outside the body to collect urine.
  • Medical oncologists with vast experience in giving chemotherapy to people with bladder cancer. We carefully tailor treatments to be as effective as possible while minimizing side effects.
  • Radiation oncologists who use advanced techniques to target tumors and areas where there is a risk the cancer may come back. This includes delivering radiation guided by highly sophisticated imaging approaches that are not available at most hospitals.
  • Access to clinical trials investigating new and improved treatments for bladder cancer. Sometimes these studies offer therapies years before they are available anywhere else. This includes new immunotherapy approaches that have proven very effective in some people with advanced bladder cancer.
  • A comprehensive program to support the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people with bladder cancer during and after treatment. This includes nurses who are trained specifically to care for people with bladder cancer during outpatient chemotherapy or after surgery.
  • Great flexibility in how and where to receive treatment. Our specialists are not just located in Manhattan. We can care for people with bladder cancer at our regional outpatient locations in New Jersey, as well as in Westchester County and on Long Island. At these sites, we give the same outstanding care from Memorial Sloan Kettering doctors but closer to home.
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