What is bladder cancer?
Bladder cancer develops when abnormal cells in the bladder grow and divide in an uncontrolled way. Around 3,000 Australians are diagnosed with bladder cancer each year and it is more common in people aged over 60 and in men. It can be treated if it is detected early on.
The bladder is a small organ in the lower part of the stomach that stores urine. If you develop bladder cancer, abnormal cells grow in the lining of the bladder. This is called superficial bladder cancer.
The cancer cells can sometimes spread to the muscle wall of the bladder or even further to other organs or lymph nodes. This is called invasive bladder cancer.
While it can be treated if detected early on, more than 1,000 people in Australia still die of bladder cancer each year.
What are the types of bladder cancer?
The most common form of bladder cancer is called urothelial carcinoma (or transitional carcinoma). This starts in the urothelial cells in the bladder wall.
Rarer types of bladder cancer are squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the cells that line the bladder, and adenocarcinoma, which starts in a type of cell that produces mucus.
What are the symptoms of bladder cancer?
The most common sign of bladder cancer is blood in the urine. It usually happens suddenly but isn’t painful. If you ever see blood in your urine, you should always get it checked by a doctor.
Other symptoms of bladder cancer include:
- having trouble emptying the bladder when you go to the toilet
- a burning feeling when you’re trying to pass urine
- needing to pass urine often, or feeling the need to go urgently
- pain in your lower stomach or back
None of these symptoms is necessarily caused by bladder cancer. But if you have any of the above, tell your doctor.
What causes bladder cancer?
We don't fully understand why bladder cancer develops in some people. Some factors may increase the risk:
- exposure to certain chemicals
- family history of bladder cancer
- chronic inflammation of the bladder
- some sorts of chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment for cancer
How is bladder cancer diagnosed?
Your doctor will examine you and may order several tests, including blood tests, urine tests and scans such as a CT, ultrasound or MRI scan.
The main test to diagnose bladder cancer is called a cystoscopy, which is usually performed by a specialist doctor called a urologist. The doctor will look inside your bladder with a small camera. If they see anything suspicious, they will take a biopsy, a small sample of tissue, to be examined in a laboratory.
How is bladder cancer treated?
Any treatment will depend on the type of bladder cancer and how far it has spread.
Surgery may be done to remove any tumours. This is called a ‘transurethral resection’ and is usually done using a cystoscope with a wire loop at the end. The cancer cells can also be burned or lasered during surgery.
If you have non-invasive bladder cancer, you may be given medicine to stimulate your own immune system to fight the cancer (known as immunotherapy).
Some people will have chemotherapy medicine delivered straight into the bladder via a catheter.
Invasive bladder cancer is usually treated with surgery and sometimes radiotherapy and chemotherapy as well. If the cancer has spread to the muscle and other organs, the entire bladder will probably need to be removed along with nearby lymph nodes. A new bladder will be constructed for you either inside your body or in a bag outside your body.
Living with bladder cancer
If your bladder has been removed, you will have reconstructive surgery. You will need to learn how to manage a bladder reconstruction and will be helped with this by continence nurses and physiotherapists. For more information, visit the Cancer Council Victoria website.
After you have been treated for cancer, it is normal to feel afraid that the cancer will return. If you are struggling, it is important to seek support from your doctor, a therapist or other people who have been through cancer.
Resources and support
For more information and support, try these resources:
- The Continence Foundation of Australia provides information about bladder control. Call 1800 33 00 66.
- The National Public Toilet Map helps you find the location of the nearest public toilet. You can download it as an app.
- Information on the social and emotional impact of cancer is available in the Cancer Australia resource, Cancer — how are you travelling?
- Cancer Council Australia provides services and support to all people affected by cancer. Call on 13 11 20.
- Beyond Blue provides support for people with depression and anxiety.
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Last reviewed: June 2021