What Is Bladder Cancer?
The bladder is a hollow organ in the pelvis with flexible, muscular walls. Its main function is to store urine before it leaves the body. Urine is made by the kidneys and is then carried to the bladder through tubes called ureters. When you urinate, the muscles in the bladder contract, and urine is forced out of the bladder through a tube called the urethra.
Start and spread of bladder cancer
The wall of the bladder has several layers, which are made up of different types of cells
Most bladder cancers start in the innermost lining of the bladder, which is called the urothelium or transitional epithelium. As the cancer grows into or through the other layers in the bladder wall, it becomes more advanced and can be harder to treat.
Over time, the cancer might grow outside the bladder and into nearby structures. It might spread to nearby lymph nodes, or to other parts of the body. (If bladder cancer spreads, it often goes first to distant lymph nodes, the bones, the lungs, or the liver.)
Types of bladder cancer
Several types of cancer can start in the bladder.
Urothelial carcinoma (transitional cell carcinoma)
Urothelial carcinoma, also known as transitional cell carcinoma (TCC), is by far the most common type of bladder cancer. In fact, if you are told you have bladder cancer it is almost certain to be a urothelial carcinoma. These cancers start in the urothelial cells that line the inside of the bladder.
Urothelial cells also line other parts of the urinary tract, such as the part of the kidney that connects to the ureter (called the renal pelvis), the ureters, and the urethra. Patients with bladder cancer sometimes have other tumors in these places, so the entire urinary tract needs to be checked for tumors.
Invasive versus non-invasive bladder cancer
Bladder cancers are often described based on how far they have invaded into the wall of the bladder:
- Non-invasive cancers are still in the inner layer of cells (the transitional epithelium) but have not grown into the deeper layers.
- Invasive cancers have grown into deeper layers of the bladder wall. These cancers are more likely to spread and are harder to treat.
A bladder cancer can also be described as superficial or non-muscle invasive. These terms include both non-invasive tumors as well as any invasive tumors that have not grown into the main muscle layer of the bladder.
Papillary versus flat cancer
Bladder cancers are also divided into 2 subtypes, papillary and flat, based on how they grow (see image above).
- Papillary carcinomas grow in slender, finger-like projections from the inner surface of the bladder toward the hollow center. Papillary tumors often grow toward the center of the bladder without growing into the deeper bladder layers. These tumors are called non-invasive papillary cancers. Very low-grade (slow growing), non-invasive papillary cancer is sometimes called papillary urothelial neoplasm of low-malignant potential (PUNLMP) and tends to have a very good outcome.
- Flat carcinomas do not grow toward the hollow part of the bladder at all. If a flat tumor is only in the inner layer of bladder cells, it is known as a non-invasive flat carcinoma or a flat carcinoma in situ (CIS).
If either a papillary or flat tumor grows into deeper layers of the bladder, it is called an invasive urothelial (or transitional cell) carcinoma.
Other cancers that start in the bladder
Several other types of cancer can start in the bladder, but these are all much less common than urothelial (transitional cell) cancer.
Squamous cell carcinoma: In the United States, only about 1% to 2% of bladder cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Under a microscope, the cells look much like the flat cells that are found on the surface of the skin. Nearly all squamous cell carcinomas are invasive.
Adenocarcinoma: Only about 1% of bladder cancers are adenocarcinomas. The cancer cells have a lot in common with gland-forming cells of colon cancers. Nearly all adenocarcinomas of the bladder are invasive.
Small cell carcinoma: Less than 1% of bladder cancers are small-cell carcinomas, which start in nerve-like cells called neuroendocrine cells. These cancers often grow quickly and typically need to be treated with chemotherapy like that used for small cell carcinoma of the lung.
These less common types of bladder cancer (other than sarcoma) are treated similar to TCCs, especially for early stage tumors, but if chemotherapy is needed, different drugs might be used.
Bladder Cancer Risk Factors
A risk factor is anything that changes your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. Some risk factors, like smoking, can be changed. Others, like a person’s age or family history, can’t be changed.
But having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that you will get the disease. Many people with risk factors never get bladder cancer, while others with this disease may have few or no known risk factors.
Still, it’s important to know about the risk factors for bladder cancer because there may be things you can do that might lower your risk of getting it. If you are at higher risk because of certain factors, you might be helped by tests that could find it early, when treatment is most likely to be effective.
Several risk factors make a person more likely to develop bladder cancer.
Risk factors you can change
Smoking is the most important risk factor for bladder cancer. Smokers are at least 3 times as likely to get bladder cancer as nonsmokers. Smoking causes about half of all bladder cancers in both men and women.
If you or someone you know smokes and would like help quitting, see Guide to Quitting Smoking, or call us at 1-800-227-2345 for more information.
Certain industrial chemicals have been linked with bladder cancer. Chemicals called aromatic amines, such as benzidine and beta-naphthylamine, which are sometimes used in the dye industry, can cause bladder cancer.
Workers in other industries that use certain organic chemicals also may have a higher risk of bladder cancer. Industries carrying higher risks include makers of rubber, leather, textiles, and paint products as well as printing companies. Other workers with an increased risk of developing bladder cancer include painters, machinists, printers, hairdressers (probably because of heavy exposure to hair dyes), and truck drivers (likely because of exposure to diesel fumes).
Cigarette smoking and workplace exposures can act together to cause bladder cancer. Smokers who also work with cancer-causing chemicals have an especially high risk of bladder cancer.
Certain medicines or herbal supplements
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), use of the diabetes medicine pioglitazone (Actos) for more than one year may be linked with an increased risk of bladder cancer. This possible link is still an area of active research.
Dietary supplements containing aristolochic acid (mainly in herbs from the Aristolochia family) have been linked with an increased risk of urothelial cancers, including bladder cancer.
Arsenic in drinking water
Arsenic in drinking water has been linked with a higher risk of bladder cancer in some parts of the world. The chance of being exposed to arsenic depends on where you live and whether you get your water from a well or from a public water system that meets the standards for low arsenic content. For most Americans, drinking water is not a major source of arsenic.
Not drinking enough fluids
People who drink a lot of fluids, especially water, each day tend to have lower rates of bladder cancer. This might be because they empty their bladders more often, which could keep chemicals from lingering in their bladder.
Risk factors you cannot change
Race and ethnicity
Whites are about twice as likely to develop bladder cancer as African Americans and Hispanics. Asian Americans and American Indians have slightly lower rates of bladder cancer. The reasons for these differences are not well understood.
The risk of bladder cancer increases with age. About 9 out of 10 people with bladder cancer are older than 55.
Bladder cancer is much more common in men than in women.
Chronic bladder irritation and infections
Urinary infections, kidney and bladder stones, bladder catheters left in place a long time, and other causes of chronic bladder irritation have been linked with bladder cancer (especially squamous cell carcinoma of the bladder), but it’s not clear if they actually cause bladder cancer.
Schistosomiasis (also known as bilharziasis), an infection with a parasitic worm that can get into the bladder, is also a risk factor for bladder cancer. In countries where this parasite is common (mainly in Africa and the Middle East), squamous cell cancers of the bladder are seen much more often. This is an extremely rare cause of bladder cancer in the United States.
Personal history of bladder or other urothelial cancer
Urothelial carcinomas can sometimes form in different areas in the bladder, as well as in the lining of the kidney, the ureters, and urethra. Having a cancer in the lining of any part of the urinary tract puts you at higher risk of having another cancer, either in the same area as before, or in another part of the urinary tract. This is true even when the first tumor is removed completely. For this reason, people who have had bladder cancer need careful follow-up to look for new cancers.
Bladder birth defects
Before birth, there is a connection between the belly button and the bladder. This is called the urachus. If part of this connection remains after birth, it could become cancerous. Cancers that start in the urachus are usually adenocarcinomas, which are made up of cancerous gland cells. About one-third of the adenocarcinomas of the bladder start here. However, this is still rare, accounting for less than half of 1% of all bladder cancers.
Another rare birth defect called exstrophy greatly increases a person’s risk of bladder cancer. In bladder exstrophy, both the bladder and the abdominal wall in front of the bladder don’t close completely during fetal development and are fused together. This leaves the inner lining of the bladder exposed outside the body. Surgery soon after birth can close the bladder and abdominal wall (and repair other related defects), but people who have this still have a higher risk for urinary infections and bladder cancer.
Genetics and family history
People who have family members with bladder cancer have a higher risk of getting it themselves. Sometimes this may be because the family members are exposed to the same cancer-causing chemicals (such as those in tobacco smoke). They may also share changes in some genes (like GST and NAT) that make it hard for their bodies to break down certain toxins, which can make them more likely to get bladder cancer.
A small number of people inherit a gene syndrome that increases their risk for bladder cancer. For example:
- A mutation of the retinoblastoma (RB1) gene can cause cancer of the eye in infants, and also increases the risk of bladder cancer.
- Cowden disease, caused by mutations in the PTEN gene, is linked mainly to cancers of the breast and thyroid. People with this disease also have a higher risk of bladder cancer.
- Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer, or HNPCC) is linked mainly to colon and endometrial People with this syndrome might also have an increased risk of bladder cancer (as well as other cancers of the urinary tract).
For information on being tested for inherited gene changes that increase cancer risk, see Understanding Genetic Testing for Cancer.
Prior chemotherapy or radiation therapy
Taking the chemotherapy drug cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) for a long time can irritate the bladder and increase the risk of bladder cancer. People taking this drug are often told to drink plenty of fluids to help protect the bladder from irritation.
People who are treated with radiation to the pelvis are more likely to develop bladder cancer.
What Causes Bladder Cancer?
Researchers do not know exactly what causes most bladder cancers. But they have found some risk factors and are starting to understand how they cause cells in the bladder to become cancer.
Certain changes in the DNA inside normal bladder cells can make them grow abnormally and form cancers. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes, which control how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA, but DNA affects more than just how we look.
Some genes control when cells grow, divide into new cells, and die:
- Genes that help cells grow, divide, and stay alive are called oncogenes.
- Genes that normally help control cell division, repair mistakes in DNA, or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes.
Cancers can be caused by DNA changes (gene mutations) that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes. Several different gene changes are usually needed for a cell to become cancer.
Acquired gene mutations
Most gene mutations related to bladder cancer develop during a person’s life rather than having been inherited before birth. Some of these acquired gene mutations result from exposure to cancer-causing chemicals or radiation. For example, chemicals in tobacco smoke can be absorbed into the blood, filtered by the kidneys, and end up in urine, where they can affect bladder cells. Other chemicals may reach the bladder the same way. But sometimes, gene changes may just be random events that sometimes happen inside a cell, without having an outside cause.
The gene changes that lead to bladder cancer are not the same in all people. Acquired changes in certain genes, such as the TP53 or RB1 tumor suppressor genes and the FGFR and RAS oncogenes, are thought to be important in the development of some bladder cancers. Changes in these and similar genes may also make some bladder cancers more likely to grow and invade the bladder wall than others. Research in this field is aimed at developing tests that can find bladder cancers at an early stage by finding their DNA changes.
Inherited gene mutations
Some people inherit gene changes from their parents that increase their risk of bladder cancer. But bladder cancer does not often run in families, and inherited gene mutations are not thought to be a major cause of this disease.
Some people seem to inherit a reduced ability to detoxify (break down) and get rid of certain types of cancer-causing chemicals. These people are more sensitive to the cancer-causing effects of tobacco smoke and certain industrial chemicals. Researchers have developed tests to identify such people, but these tests are not routinely done. It’s not certain how helpful the results of such tests might be, since doctors already recommend that all people avoid tobacco smoke and hazardous industrial chemicals.
Can Bladder Cancer Be Prevented?
There is no sure way to prevent bladder cancer. Some risk factors such as age, gender, race, and family history can’t be controlled. But there may be things you can do that could lower your risk.
Smoking is thought to cause about half of all bladder cancers. If you are thinking about quitting smoking and need help, call the American Cancer Society for information and support at 1-800-227-2345.
Limit exposure to certain chemicals in the workplace
Workers in industries that use certain organic chemicals may have a higher risk of bladder cancer. Workplaces where these chemicals are commonly used include the rubber, leather, printing materials, textiles, and paint industries. If you work in a place where you might be exposed to such chemicals, be sure to follow good work safety practices.
Some chemicals found in certain hair dyes might also increase risk, so it’s important for hairdressers and barbers who are exposed to these products regularly to use them safely. (Most studies have not found that personal use of hair dyes increases bladder cancer risk.) For more information, see Hair Dyes.
Some research has suggested that people exposed to diesel fumes in the workplace might also have a higher risk of bladder cancer (as well as some other cancers), so limiting this exposure might be helpful.
Drink plenty of liquids
There is some evidence that drinking a lot of fluids – mainly water – might lower a person’s risk of bladder cancer.
Eat lots of fruits and vegetables
Some studies have suggested that a diet high in fruits and vegetables might help protect against bladder cancer, but other studies have not found this. Still, eating a healthy diet has been shown to have many benefits, including lowering the risk of some other types of cancer.
Can Bladder Cancer Be Found Early?
Bladder cancer can sometimes be found early. Finding it early improves your chances that it can be treated successfully.
Screening for bladder cancer
Screening is the use of tests or exams to look for a disease in people who have no symptoms. At this time, no major professional organizations recommend routine screening of the general public for bladder cancer. This is because no screening test has been shown to lower the risk of dying from bladder cancer in people who are at average risk.
Some doctors may recommend bladder cancer tests for people at very high risk, such as:
- People who had bladder cancer before
- People who had certain birth defects of the bladder
- People exposed to certain chemicals at work
Tests that might be used to look for bladder cancer
Tests for bladder cancer look for different substances or cancer cells in the urine.
Urinalysis: One way to test for bladder cancer is to check for blood in the urine (called hematuria). This can be done during a urinalysis, which is a simple test to check for blood and other substances in a sample of urine. This test is sometimes done during a general health checkup.
Blood in the urine is usually caused by benign (non-cancerous) conditions such as infections, but it also can be the first sign of bladder cancer. Large amounts of blood in urine can be seen if the urine turns pink or red, but a urinalysis is needed to find small amounts.
Urinalysis can help find some bladder cancers early, but it has not been shown to be useful as a routine screening test.
Urine cytology: In this test, the doctor uses a microscope to look for cancer cells in urine. Urine cytology does find some cancers, but it is not reliable enough to make a good screening test.
Urine tests for tumor markers: Several newer tests look for substances in the urine that might indicate bladder cancer. These include:
- UroVysion™: This test looks for chromosome changes that are often seen in bladder cancer cells.
- BTA tests: These tests look for a substance called bladder tumor-associated antigen (BTA), also known as CFHrp, in the urine.
- Immunocyt™: This test looks at cells in the urine for the presence of substances such as mucin and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), which are often found on cancer cells.
- NMP22 BladderChek®: This test looks for a protein called NMP22 in the urine, which is often found at higher levels in people who have bladder cancer.
These tests might find some bladder cancers early, but they can miss some as well. In other cases, the test result might be abnormal even in some people who do not have cancer. At this time the tests are used mainly to look for bladder cancer in people who already have signs or symptoms of cancer, or in people who have had a bladder cancer removed to check for cancer recurrence. Further research is needed before these or other newer tests are proven useful as screening tests.
Watching for possible symptoms of bladder cancer
While no screening tests are recommended for people at average risk, bladder cancer can often be found early because it causes blood in the urine or other urinary symptoms. Many of these symptoms often have less serious causes, but it’s important to have them checked by a doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed. If the symptoms are from bladder cancer, finding it early offers the best chance for successful treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of Bladder Cancer
Bladder cancer can often be found early because it causes blood in the urine or other urinary symptoms.
Blood in the urine
In most cases, blood in the urine (called hematuria) is the first sign of bladder cancer. Sometimes, there is enough blood to change the color of the urine to orange, pink, or, less often, darker red. Sometimes, the color of the urine is normal but small amounts of blood are found when a urine test (urinalysis) is done because of other symptoms or as part of a general medical checkup.
Blood may be present one day and absent the next, with the urine remaining clear for weeks or months. If a person has bladder cancer, blood eventually reappears.
Usually, the early stages of bladder cancer cause bleeding but little or no pain or other symptoms.
Blood in the urine does not always mean you have bladder cancer. More often it is caused by other things like an infection, benign (non-cancerous) tumors, stones in the kidney or bladder, or other benign kidney diseases. But it’s important to have it checked by a doctor so the cause can be found.
Changes in bladder habits or symptoms of irritation
Bladder cancer can sometimes cause changes in urination, such as:
- Having to urinate more often than usual
- Pain or burning during urination
- Feeling as if you need to go right away, even when the bladder is not full
- Having trouble urinating or having a weak urine stream
These symptoms are also more likely to be caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI), bladder stones, an overactive bladder, or an enlarged prostate (in men). Still, it’s important to have them checked by a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
Symptoms of advanced bladder cancer
Bladder cancers that have grown large enough or have spread to other parts of the body can sometimes cause other symptoms, such as:
- Being unable to urinate
- Lower back pain on one side
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Feeling tired or weak
- Swelling in the feet
- Bone pain
Again, many of these symptoms are more likely to be caused by something other than bladder cancer, but it’s important to have them checked so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
If there is a reason to suspect you might have bladder cancer, the doctor will use one or more exams or tests to find out if it is cancer or something else.
- Tests for Bladder Cancer
Bladder cancer is often found because of signs or symptoms a person is having, or it might be found because of lab tests a person gets for another reason. If bladder cancer is suspected, exams and tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis. If cancer is found, further tests will be done to help determine the extent ( stage) of the cancer.
Medical history and physical exam
Your doctor will want to get your medical history to learn more about your symptoms. The doctor might also ask about possible risk factors, including your family history.
A physical exam can provide other information about possible signs of bladder cancer and other health problems. The doctor might do a digital rectal exam (DRE), during which a gloved, lubricated finger is put into your rectum. If you are a woman, the doctor might do a pelvic exam as well. During these exams, the doctor can sometimes feel a bladder tumor, determine its size, and feel if and how far it has spread.
If the results of the exam are abnormal, your doctor will probably do lab tests and might refer you to a urologist (a doctor specializing in diseases of the urinary system and male reproductive system) for further tests and treatment.
Urine lab tests
This is a simple test to check for blood and other substances in a sample of urine.
For this test, a sample of urine is looked at with a microscope to see if it has any cancer or pre-cancer cells. Cytology is also done on any bladder washings taken during a cystoscopy (see below). Cytology can help find some cancers, but this test is not perfect. Not finding cancer on this test doesn’t always mean you are cancer free.
If you are having urinary symptoms, this test may be done to see if an infection (rather than cancer) is the cause. Urinary tract infections and bladder cancers can have similar symptoms. For a urine culture, a sample of urine is put into a dish in the lab to allow any bacteria that are present to grow. It can take time for the bacteria to grow, so it may take a few days to get the results of this test.
Urine tumor marker tests
Different urine tests look for specific substances released by bladder cancer cells. One or more of these tests may be used along with urine cytology to help determine if you have bladder cancer. These include the tests for NMP22 (BladderChek) and BTA (BTA stat), the Immunocyt test, and the UroVysion test.
Some doctors find these urine tests useful in looking for bladder cancers, but they may not help in all cases. Most doctors feel that cystoscopy is still the best way to find bladder cancer. Some of these tests are more helpful when looking for a possible recurrence of bladder cancer in someone who has already had it, rather than finding it in the first place.
Endoscopic (cystoscopy) view of a bladder cancer just before resection
If bladder cancer is suspected, doctors will recommend a cystoscopy. For this exam, a urologist places a cystoscope – a thin tube with a light and a lens or a small video camera on the end – through the opening of the urethra and advances it into the bladder. Sterile salt water is then injected through the scope to expand the bladder and allow the doctor to look at its inner lining.
Cystoscopy can be done in a doctor’s office or in an operating room. Usually the first cystoscopy will be done in the doctor’s office using a small, flexible fiber-optic device. Some sort of local anesthesia may be used to numb the urethra and bladder for the procedure. If the cystoscopy is done using general anesthesia (where you are asleep) or spinal anesthesia (where the lower part of your body is numbed), the procedure is done in the operating room.
Fluorescence cystoscopy (also known as blue light cystoscopy) may be done along with routine cystoscopy. For this exam, a light-activated drug is put into the bladder during cystoscopy. It is taken up by cancer cells. When the doctor then shines a blue light through the cystoscope, any cells containing the drug will glow (fluoresce). This can help the doctor see abnormal areas that might have been missed by the white light normally used.
Transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT)
If an abnormal area (or areas) is seen during a cystoscopy, it will be biopsied to see if it is cancer. A biopsy is the removal of small samples of body tissue to see if it is cancer. If bladder cancer is suspected, a biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis.
The procedure used to biopsy an abnormal area is a transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT), also known as just a transurethral resection (TUR). During this procedure, the doctor removes the tumor and some of the bladder muscle near the tumor. The removed samples are then sent to a lab to look for cancer. If cancer is found, this can also show if it has invaded into the muscle layer of the bladder wall.
Bladder cancer can sometimes develop in more than one area of the bladder (or in other parts of the urinary tract). Because of this, the doctor may take samples from several different areas of the bladder, especially if cancer is strongly suspected but no tumor can be seen. Salt water washings of the inside the bladder may also be collected to look for cancer cells.
The biopsy samples are sent to a lab, where they are looked at by a pathologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing diseases with lab tests. If bladder cancer is found, two important features are its invasiveness and grade.
Invasiveness: The biopsy can show how deeply the cancer has invaded (grown into) the bladder wall which is very important in deciding treatment.
- If the cancer stays in the inner layer of cells without growing into the deeper layers, it is called non-invasive.
- If the cancer grows into the deeper layers of the bladder, it is called invasive.
Invasive cancers are more likely to spread and are harder to treat.
You may also see a bladder cancer described as superficial or non-muscle invasive. These terms include both non-invasive tumors as well as any invasive tumors that have not grown into the main muscle layer of the bladder.
Grade: Bladder cancers are also assigned a grade, based on how they look under the microscope.
- Low-grade cancers look more like normal bladder tissue. They are also called well-differentiated Patients with these cancers usually have a good prognosis (outlook).
- High-grade cancers look less like normal tissue. These cancers may also be called poorly differentiated or undifferentiated. High-grade cancers are more likely to grow into the bladder wall and to spread outside the bladder. These cancers can be harder to treat.
Imaging for bladder cancer
Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body.
If you have bladder cancer, your doctor may order some of these tests to see if the cancer has spread to structures near the bladder, to nearby lymph nodes, or to distant organs. If an imaging test shows enlarged lymph nodes or other possible signs of cancer spread, some type of biopsy might be needed to confirm the findings.
Intravenous pyelogram (IVP)
An intravenous pyelogram (IVP), also called an intravenous urogram (IVU), is an x-ray of the urinary system taken after injecting a special dye into a vein. This dye is removed from the bloodstream by the kidneys and then passes into the ureters and bladder. The dye outlines these organs on x-rays and helps show urinary tract tumors.
It’s important to tell your doctor if you have any allergies or have ever had a reaction to x-ray dyes, or if you have any type of kidney problems. If so, your doctor might choose to do another test instead.
For this test, a catheter (thin tube) is placed through the urethra and up into the bladder or into a ureter. Then a dye is injected through the catheter to make the lining of the bladder, ureters, and kidneys easier to see on x-rays.
This test isn’t used as often as IVP, but it may be done (along with ultrasound of the kidneys) to look for tumors in the urinary tract in people who can’t have an IVP.
Computed tomography (CT) scan
A CT scan uses x-rays to make detailed cross-sectional images of your body. A CT scan of the kidney, ureters, and bladder is known as a CT urogram. It can provide detailed information about the size, shape, and position of any tumors in the urinary tract, including the bladder. It can also help show enlarged lymph nodes that might contain cancer, as well as other organs in the abdomen and pelvis.
CT-guided needle biopsy: CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy needle into a suspected tumor. This is not used to biopsy tumors in the bladder, but it can be used to take samples from areas where the cancer may have spread. For this procedure, you lie on the CT scanning table while the doctor advances a biopsy needle through the skin and into the tumor.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
Like CT scans , MRI scans show detailed images of soft tissues in the body. But MRI scans use radio waves and strong magnets instead of x-rays.
MRI images are particularly useful in showing if the cancer has spread outside of the bladder into nearby tissues or lymph nodes. A special MRI of the kidneys, ureters, and bladder, known as an MRI urogram, can be used instead of an IVP to look at the upper part of the urinary system.
Ultrasound uses sound waves to create pictures of internal organs. It can be useful in determining the size of a bladder cancer and whether it has spread beyond the bladder to nearby organs or tissues. It can also be used to look at the kidneys.
This is usually an easy test to have, and it uses no radiation.
Ultrasound-guided needle biopsy: Ultrasound can also be used to guide a biopsy needle into a suspected area of cancer spread in the abdomen or pelvis.
A chest x-ray may be done to see if the bladder cancer has spread to the lungs. This test is not needed if a CT scan of the chest has been done.
A bone scan can help look for cancer that has spread to bones. Doctors don’t usually order this test unless you have symptoms such as bone pain, or if blood tests show the cancer might have spread to your bones.
For this test, you get an injection of a small amount of low-level radioactive material, which settles in areas of damaged bone throughout the body. A special camera detects the radioactivity and creates a picture of your skeleton.
A bone scan may suggest cancer in the bone, but to be sure, other imaging tests such as plain x-rays, MRI scans, or even a bone biopsy might be needed.
Biopsies to look for cancer spread
If imaging tests suggest the cancer might have spread outside of the bladder, a biopsy might be needed to be sure.
In some cases, biopsy samples of suspicious areas are obtained during surgery to remove the bladder cancer.
Another way to get a biopsy sample is to use a thin, hollow needle to take a small piece of tissue from the abnormal area. This is known as a needle biopsy, and by using it the doctor can take samples without an operation. Needle biopsies are sometimes done using a CT scan or ultrasound to help guide the biopsy needle into the abnormal area.
Bladder Cancer Stages
What is the stage of a cancer?
The stage of a bladder cancer describes how far it has spread. It’s one of the most important factors in choosing treatment options and predicting a person’s prognosis (outlook). If you have bladder cancer, ask your cancer care team to explain its stage. This can help you make informed choices about your treatment.
There are actually 2 types of stages for bladder cancer.
- The clinical stage is the doctor’s best estimate of the extent of the cancer, based on the results of physical exams, cystoscopy, biopsies, and any imaging tests that are done (such as CT scans).
- If surgery is done to treat the cancer, the pathologic stage can be determined using the same factors as the clinical stage, plus what is found during surgery.
The clinical stage is used to help plan treatment. Sometimes, though, the cancer has spread farther than the clinical stage estimates. Pathologic staging is likely to be more accurate, because it gives your doctor a firsthand impression of the extent of your cancer.
Understanding your bladder cancer stage
A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to describe how far a cancer has spread. The staging system most often used for bladder cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system, which is based on 3 key pieces of information:
- T describes how far the main (primary) tumor has grown through the bladder wall and whether it has grown into nearby tissues.
- N indicates any cancer spread to lymph nodes near the bladder. Lymph nodes are bean-sized collections of immune system cells, to which cancers often spread first.
- M indicates whether or not the cancer has spread (metastasized) to distant sites, such as other organs or lymph nodes that are not near the bladder.
Numbers or letters appear after T, N, and M to provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced.
T categories for bladder cancer
The T category describes how far the main tumor has grown into the wall of the bladder (or beyond).
The wall of the bladder has 4 main layers.
- The innermost lining is called the urothelium or transitional epithelium.
- Beneath the urothelium is a thin layer of connective tissue, blood vessels, and nerves.
- Next is a thick layer of muscle.
- Outside of this muscle, a layer of fatty connective tissue separates the bladder from other nearby organs.
Nearly all bladder cancers start in the urothelium. As the cancer grows into or through the other layers in the bladder, it becomes more advanced.
TX: Main tumor cannot be assessed due to lack of information
T0: No evidence of a primary tumor
Ta: Non-invasive papillary carcinoma
Tis: Non-invasive flat carcinoma (flat carcinoma in situ, or CIS)
(For a description of papillary and flat carcinomas, see What is bladder cancer?)
T1: The tumor has grown from the layer of cells lining the bladder into the connective tissue below. It has not grown into the muscle layer of the bladder.
T2: The tumor has grown into the muscle layer.
- T2a: The tumor has grown only into the inner half of the muscle layer.
- T2b: The tumor has grown into the outer half of the muscle layer.
T3: The tumor has grown through the muscle layer of the bladder and into the fatty tissue layer that surrounds it.
- T3a: The spread to fatty tissue can only be seen by using a microscope.
- T3b: The spread to fatty tissue is large enough to be seen on imaging tests or to be seen or felt by the surgeon.
T4: The tumor has spread beyond the fatty tissue and into nearby organs or structures. It may be growing into any of the following: the stroma (main tissue) of the prostate, the seminal vesicles, uterus, vagina, pelvic wall, or abdominal wall.
- T4a: The tumor has spread to the stroma of the prostate (in men), or to the uterus and/or vagina (in women).
- T4b: The tumor has spread to the pelvic wall or the abdominal wall.
Bladder cancer can sometimes affect many areas of the bladder at the same time. If more than one tumor is found, the letter m is added to the appropriate T category.
N categories for bladder cancer
The N category describes spread only to the lymph nodes near the bladder (in the true pelvis) and those along the blood vessel called the common iliac artery. These lymph nodes are called regional lymph nodes. Any other lymph nodes are considered distant lymph nodes. Spread to distant nodes is considered metastasis (described in the M category). Surgery is usually needed to find cancer spread to lymph nodes, since it is not often seen on imaging tests.
NX: Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed due to lack of information.
N0: There is no regional lymph node spread.
N1: The cancer has spread to a single lymph node in the true pelvis.
N2: The cancer has spread to 2 or more lymph nodes in the true pelvis.
N3: The cancer has spread to lymph nodes along the common iliac artery.
M categories for bladder cancer
M0: There are no signs of distant spread.
M1: The cancer has spread to distant parts of the body. (The most common sites are distant lymph nodes, the bones, the lungs, and the liver.)
Stages of bladder cancer
Once the T, N, and M categories have been determined, this information is combined to find the overall cancer stage. Bladder cancer stages are defined using 0 and the Roman numerals I to IV (1 to 4). Stage 0 is the earliest stage, while stage IV is the most advanced.
Stage 0a (Ta, N0, M0)
The cancer is a non-invasive papillary carcinoma (Ta). It has grown toward the hollow center of the bladder but has not grown into the connective tissue or muscle of the bladder wall. It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or distant sites (M0).
Stage 0is (Tis, N0, M0)
The cancer is a flat, non-invasive carcinoma (Tis), also known as flat carcinoma in situ (CIS). The cancer is growing in the inner lining layer of the bladder only. It has not grown inward toward the hollow part of the bladder, nor has it invaded the connective tissue or muscle of the bladder wall. It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or distant sites (M0).
Stage I (T1, N0, M0)
The cancer has grown into the layer of connective tissue under the lining layer of the bladder but has not reached the layer of muscle in the bladder wall (T1). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).
Stage II (T2a or T2b, N0, M0)
The cancer has grown into the thick muscle layer of the bladder wall, but it has not passed completely through the muscle to reach the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder (T2). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).
Stage III (T3a, T3b, or T4a, N0, M0)
The cancer has grown into the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder (T3a or T3b). It might have spread into the prostate, uterus, or vagina, but it is not growing into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4a). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).
One of the following applies:
T4b, N0, M0: The cancer has grown through the bladder wall and into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4b). The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).
Any T, N1 to N3, M0: The cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes (N1-N3) but not to distant sites (M0).
- Any T, any N, M1: The cancer has spread to distant lymph nodes or to sites such as the bones, liver, or lungs (M1)
Survival Rates for Bladder Cancer
Survival rates tell you what portion of people with the same type and stage of cancer are still alive a certain amount of time (usually 5 years) after they were diagnosed. They can’t tell you how long you will live, but they may help give you a better understanding about how likely it is that your treatment will be successful. Some people will want to know the survival rates for their cancer, and some people won’t. If you don’t want to know, you don’t have to.
What is a 5-year survival rate?
Statistics on the outlook for a certain type and stage of cancer are often given as 5-year survival rates, but many people live longer – often much longer – than 5 years. The 5-year survival rate is the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after being diagnosed with cancer. For example, a 5-year survival rate of 70% means that an estimated 70 out of 100 people who have that cancer are still alive 5 years after being diagnosed. Keep in mind, however, that many of these people live much longer than 5 years after diagnosis.
Relative survival rates are a more accurate way to estimate the effect of cancer on survival. These rates compare people with bladder cancer to people in the overall population. For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate for a specific stage of bladder cancer is 80%, it means that people who have that stage of cancer are, on average, about 80% as likely as people who don’t have that cancer to live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed.
But remember, the 5-year relative survival rates are estimates – your outlook can vary based on a number of factors specific to you.
Survival rates are often based on previous outcomes of large numbers of people who had the disease, but they can’t predict what will happen in any particular person’s case. There are a number of limitations to remember:
- The numbers below are among the most current available. But to get 5-year survival rates, doctors have to look at people who were treated at least 5 years ago. As treatments are improving over time, people who are now being diagnosed with bladder cancer may have a better outlook than these statistics show.
- These statistics are based on the stage of the cancer when it was first diagnosed. They do not apply to cancers that later come back or spread, for example.
- The outlook for people with bladder cancer varies by the stage (extent) of the cancer – in general, the survival rates are higher for people with earlier stage cancers. But many other factors can affect a person’s outlook, such as age and overall health, and how well the cancer responds to treatment. The outlook for each person is specific to their circumstances.
Your doctor can tell you how these numbers may apply to you, as he or she is familiar with your particular situation.
Survival rates for bladder cancer
According to the most recent data, when including all stages of bladder cancer:
- The 5-year relative survival rate is about 77%
- The 10-year relative survival rate is about 70%
- The 15-year relative survival rate is about 65%
Keep in mind that just as 5-year survival rates are based on people diagnosed and first treated more than 5 years ago, 10-year survival rates are based on people diagnosed more than 10 years ago (and 15-year survival rates are based on people diagnosed at least 15 years ago).
Survival rates, by stage
The numbers below are based on thousands of people diagnosed with bladder cancer from 1988 to 2001. These numbers come from the National Cancer Institute’s SEER database.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage 0 bladder cancer is about 98%.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage I bladder cancer is about 88%.
- For stage II bladder cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 63%.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for stage III bladder cancer is about 46%.
- Bladder cancer that has spread to other parts of the body is often hard to treat. Stage IV bladder cancer has a relative 5-year survival rate of about 15%. Still, there are often treatment options available for people with this stage of cancer.
Remember, these survival rates are only estimates – they can’t predict what will happen to any individual person. We understand that these statistics can be confusing and may lead you to have more questions. Talk to your doctor to better understand your specific situation.