Part of the urinary system, the bladder is a muscular, multi-layered sac that stores urine and signals to our brains when it’s time to go (which is better than the alternative of urinating involuntarily). Like all of our organs, our bladders are crucial for keeping our bodies healthy and functioning properly.
But bladder cancer, one of the most common cancers in the United States--especially among men--can completely alter the way you live your life if left undiagnosed or untreated.
“Like any cancer, bladder cancer is one we want to detect as early as possible,” says James Peabody, M.D., a urologist at Henry Ford Health. “Once the cancer spreads outside of the bladder, it becomes extremely difficult to treat, and can require chemotherapy. In some cases, we may have to remove the entire bladder.”
Bladder cancer is presented in two grades: low and high. Low grade means the disease is superficial – that it hasn’t spread into the deeper parts of the bladder wall and has low potential to spread outside the bladder. High grade bladder cancer has the potential to spread outside the bladder. This can require more invasive therapies and can decrease the survival rate.
What Are The Symptoms?
The most common symptom of bladder cancer is blood in the urine. And while this doesn’t necessarily indicate you have bladder cancer, it is a sign you should see your doctor.
“Oftentimes patients see blood in their urine, but convince themselves it’s not an issue,” Dr. Peabody says. “People usually think it is a urinary tract infection (UTI) and seek treatment for that instead.”
If treatment for a UTI doesn’t relive your symptoms, see a urologist. If you don’t seek medical care early enough for bladder cancer, the disease can progress to a point where it becomes extremely tough to treat and may not be curable.
Other symptoms that could indicate you have bladder cancer include: an increased frequency in urination or the opposite--not being able to empty your bladder because a tumor is obstructing the outflow of urine. Rarely, if large enough, you can feel the tumor through the abdominal wall. In later stages of bladder cancer, after the disease has spread, you may notice other symptoms in affected areas.
Who Is At Risk?
The median age of developing bladder cancer is 70 years old, but the risk continually rises as you get older.
There are also some differences in how bladder cancer affects men and women. While it is more common in men, women are more likely to die from the disease — it may be related to a delayed diagnosis. Experts don’t fully understand yet, but Dr. Peabody says this could be because of women’s increased likelihood of UTIs.
There are various risk factors that could aid in the development of bladder cancer. The most common one? Smoking, which causes about half of bladder cancer cases, according the American Cancer Society.
“Some studies show that smoking increases the risk of developing bladder cancer by up to 400%,” Dr. Peabody says. “The chemicals in tobacco products have been shown to directly cause bladder cancer. Quitting smoking can significantly reduce your risk.”
Other risk factors include exposure to certain chemicals from work in factories, for example, or even in hair salons, where stylists are exposed to the chemicals in hair products on a regular basis.
Bladder cancer can also be caused by irritations inside the bladder. These irritations can be the result of chronic inflammation or even the long-term use of a urinary catheter.
Is There Anything I Can Do?
There is no preventative screening process to detect bladder cancer, so in general, it’s best to live a balanced lifestyle--eat healthy, stay active and, if you smoke, take steps to quit.
It’s also crucial to see your physician on a regular basis. Your doctor can follow up on any symptoms you have (especially blood in your urine, new urinary frequency and difficulties urinating). They can also detect abnormalities you might not have noticed and keep you informed on tests and other measures you should take. Talk to your doctor about seeing a urologist if you have a family history or if you've been exposed to environmental hazards that are linked to bladder cancer.
Our multidisciplinary team of bladder cancer experts — urologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists and nurse navigators — will create a personalized treatment plan that is unique to your cancer type and stage, including potential participation in clinical trials. If your treatment requires bladder removal, they’ll perform reconstructive bladder surgery to restore urinary function. Learn more about bladder cancer and treatment options at Henry Ford or call (888) 777-4167.
Dr. James Peabody is a urologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center – Lakeside in Sterling Heights.