Your bladder probably isn’t your favorite topic of conversation, but knowing when to talk to your doctor about it is crucial to your health.
If you experience frequent and/or painful urination, or you notice blood in your urine, telling your primary care provider is the first step to diagnosing a problem and finding the right care.
More often than not, these symptoms are caused by non-life-threatening conditions like urinary tract infection, overactive bladder or, in men, an enlarged prostate. But they also could be symptoms of bladder cancer, the sixth most common form of cancer in the United States.
While it’s worth addressing any condition that’s causing you pain or discomfort, in the case of bladder cancer, early diagnosis is key. As with many cancers, bladder cancer is most treatable when it’s caught in the early stages and more challenging to treat when diagnosed later.
“Because there is no routine screening for bladder cancer, as there is for breast or colon cancer, the number one tool we have for diagnosing bladder cancer early is when a primary care doctor orders a urine test that finds blood in the urine,” says Edward Cherullo, MD, a urologist at Rush University Medical Center. “Always tell your doctor if you see blood in your urine.”
Your doctor may then refer you to a urologist for further testing and treatment.
Who is at risk for bladder cancer?
Bladder cancer is more than three times as common in men as in women, and it occurs later in life: 90% of patients diagnosed with bladder cancer are over the age of 55.
Though people who have a sibling, parent or child with bladder cancer are more likely to have it, it is rarely hereditary.
Smokers are three times more likely to get bladder cancer than nonsmokers.
The good news is that the most common risk factor is one that can be controlled: smoking.
“Everyone knows smoking causes lung cancer, but they don’t always know about bladder cancer,” says Srinivas Vourganti, MD, a Rush University Medical Center urologist who specializes in treating bladder and other urinary tract cancers.
In fact, smokers are three times more likely to get bladder cancer than nonsmokers.
“The same harmful chemicals you inhale when you smoke accumulate in your urine, and as the bladder holds urine, it is exposed to these toxins at a higher rate than other parts of the body,” Vourganti says.
For similar reasons, exposure to second-hand smoke and toxic solvents and dyes also are significant risk factors. So are recurring urinary tract infections and other sources of chronic bladder irritation.
Yet, smoking is cited as the cause in more than half of all cases, so quitting smoking (or never starting) greatly reduces your chance of developing bladder cancer.
Need help to quit smoking?
On Nov. 19, the American Cancer Society hosts the Great American Smokeout, providing support to smokers to quit on a day when they know they are not alone in their effort. The annual event is scheduled the third Thursday of November — a month dedicated to raising awareness about both lung cancer and bladder health.
The ACS offers a variety of resources for quitting smoking, as does Rush Smoking Cessation Services.
“Quitting smoking will greatly improve your health in countless ways, and significantly reduce your risk of bladder, lung and other cancers,” Vourganti says.