6 Things You Need to Know About Bladder Cancer

Including why blood in your urine could be bladder cancer.
older adult male

More than 80,000 people are diagnosed with bladder cancer every year. The sixth most common form of cancer in adults, it’s very treatable if caught early. The five-year survival rate for cancer in the inner lining of the bladder is 97%.

Learn more about the risk factors and symptoms of bladder cancer from a urologist at RUSH MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Bladder cancer symptoms imitate other problems.

“One of the issues is that symptoms of bladder cancer mimic changes that may happen in normal aging,” says Gary Steinberg, MD, a urologist at RUSH MD Anderson. “Frequent urination, difficulty emptying and pain while urinating happen to men as they age — and to men and women with bladder cancer.”

Bladder cancer may also mimic symptoms of a urinary tract infection, or UTI.

“An example is a female patient who felt fine until six months ago,” says Steinberg. “She started having pain while urinating and other symptoms of a UTI. She was on antibiotics for six months even though tests showed no bacteria overgrowth in her urine. When she came to me, we found locally advanced bladder cancer.”

If you have changes in your urinary habits that affect your daily life but test negative for bacteria (you don’t have a UTI), it’s time to talk to a urologist.

Other symptoms of bladder cancer include pain in your back between the hip and the ribs, difficulty beginning to urinate and having a more powerful urge to urinate.

There is no screening for bladder cancer.

“If you could develop a screening tool for bladder cancer, you’d be making a significant contribution to healthcare,” Steinberg says. “Lots of companies have tried, but there is no test available that has great sensitivity and specificity — there is no test that will tell you for sure if you have bladder cancer before you have symptoms.”

If you want to catch bladder cancer early, Steinberg recommends knowing your personal risk factors for bladder cancer. He also points out that sudden changes in your bladder habits should be taken seriously, as well as blood in your urine.

Visible blood in the urine is a major symptom of bladder cancer.

One of the most common symptoms of bladder cancer is blood in your urine. Does this mean if you have any blood, it’s probably cancer?

“One-third of the time, blood in the urine is caused by a pathologic abnormality, including kidney or bladder cancer,” Steinberg says. “Approximately 20 percent of adults with visible amounts of blood in the urine will have a bladder tumor.”

Some people never see blood in their urine, but their doctor detects tiny amounts during a routine urine test. Tiny amounts of blood in the urine is called microscopic hematuria — and it may not be a major cause for cancer concern.

If your doctor keeps finding microscopic hematuria and can’t find another cause, you should be evaluated by a urologist.

“About 2 to 3 percent of patients with microscopic hematuria will have bladder cancer,” Steinberg says.

There’s a non-invasive test to look for bladder cancer.

Steinberg says the first step for suspected bladder cancer is often a simple urinalysis. This checks for bacteria overgrowth in your bladder (an infection).

Once an infection is ruled out, if your doctor suspects bladder cancer — based on your symptoms, risk factors or both — you may need imaging of your abdomen and pelvis (including your kidneys and bladder).

You could also need a cystoscopy. During a cystoscopy, your doctor uses a long, flexible tube with a light and camera on the end called a cystoscope. The scope is inserted through the urethra and into the bladder. Cystoscopy is an in-office procedure that uses local anesthetic gel.

Your doctor knows what normal bladder tissue looks like, as well as what changes might indicate cancer. If there are any abnormal areas, your doctor may take a small sample of tissue or a urine sample from the bladder to examine under a microscope to look for cancer.

Smoking, of all kinds, increases your risk for bladder cancer.

“If you smoke cigarettes, you have a fivefold increase risk in developing bladder cancer compared to someone who never smoked,” Steinberg says. “Once you stop smoking, your risk decreases over time — exactly how much depends on how long and how much you smoked to begin with, but not until at least 25 years after quitting does the former smokers risk return to the bladder cancer risk of someone who never smoked.”

Steinberg notes that vaping may also not be good for your risk of bladder cancer.

“Based on research done by former colleagues, vaping is a significant concern,” he says. “However, the cancer-causing chemicals that we’re exposed to can have a latency period of 20 or 30 years. So we won’t know for sure until many years from now exactly what the risk from vaping is as far as bladder cancer is concerned.”

Steinberg also notes that other forms of inhalation, including cigars and marijuana, can also increase your risk for bladder cancer. Always remember that there is no safe form of tobacco.

Your home or workplace could increase your risk of bladder cancer.

“Some of the cancer-causing chemicals in cigarettes are also found in industrial workplaces and industrialized neighborhoods,” Steinberg says. “For example, regular exposure to diesel exhaust can more than double your risk of bladder cancer.”


To schedule an appointment with a urologist, call (888) 352-7874 

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