What is bladder cancer?

The bladder is a hollow and muscular organ that collects and stores urine (pee). In the UK, over 10,000 people are diagnosed with bladder cancer each year.

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Types of bladder cancer

There are different types of bladder cancer. These are named after the cell they started in.

The most common type of bladder cancer is called urothelial bladder cancer. It is also called transitional cell carcinoma (TCC). It starts in cells called urothelial or transitional cells in the bladder lining.

Bladder cancer may be non-muscle-invasive, muscle-invasive or advanced.

We have more information about the types of bladder cancer.

Symptoms of bladder cancer

The most common bladder cancer symptom is blood in the pee. Blood in pee is also called haematuria. Most people with symptoms will not have bladder cancer. But if you have any symptoms, it is important to get them checked by your GP. The earlier bladder cancer is diagnosed the more likely it is to be cured.

We have more information about signs and symptoms of bladder cancer.

Causes of bladder cancer

There are certain things that can affect the chances of developing bladder cancer. These are called risk factors.

The main risk factor is age. Bladder cancer is more common in people over the age of 60. It is rare in people under the age of 40. Another risk factor is smoking. Smoking may cause about 4 in 10 (40%) bladder cancers.

We have more information about these and other causes and risk factors of bladder cancer.

Diagnosis of bladder cancer

If you have symptoms, you usually start by seeing your GP. They can do a quick test to find out if there is any blood in a sample of your urine. If there is blood, your GP will make sure there is no obvious reason for this, like an infection.

If your GP is not sure what is causing your symptoms, they will usually refer you to a urologist. This is a doctor who specialises in urinary, bladder and kidney problems. Or you may see a nurse called a urology nurse specialist.

Most people see the nurse or doctor at a haematuria clinic. At the clinic, you can usually have most of the tests you need on the same day.

If tests or symptoms suggest you could have bladder cancer, you should be seen by a specialist within 2 weeks.

You may have some of the following tests:

  • Blood tests

    You may have blood tests to check how well your kidneys and liver are working and to show the number of blood cells in the blood.

  • Urine tests

    A sample of your urine may be tested for cancer cells. It may also be tested for substances that are found in bladder cancer. This is called molecular testing.

  • Cystoscopy

    A cystoscopy the main test used to diagnose bladder cancer. A cystoscope is a thin tube with a camera and light on the end. A doctor or specialist nurse uses it to look at the inside of your bladder.

  • Ultrasound scan

    An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to check the urinary system.

  • CT urogram

    CT urogram uses a series of x-rays to build up a 3D picture of the bladder, ureters and kidneys.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. We have more information that may help.

Other tests

You may also have tests to check areas near the bladder or to look for signs of cancer in other areas of the body. These may include:

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a 3D picture of the inside of the body.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • PET/CT scan

    A PET-CT scan gives more detailed information about the part of the body being scanned.

  • Bone scan

    A bone scan finds any abnormal areas of bone. A mildly radioactive substance is injected into a vein. A scan of your bones is taken 2 or 3 hours later.

Staging and grading of bladder cancer

The stage of a cancer describes where the cancer has been found and other places it has spread to.

Grading describes how the cancer cells look under the microscope compared with normal cells.

Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.

We have more information about staging and grading of bladder cancer.

Treatment for bladder cancer

Treatment for bladder cancer depends on whether the cancer is:

  • Non-muscle-invasive 

    The cancer cells are only in the inner lining of the bladder. They have not spread into the muscle layer.

  • Muscle-invasive

    The cancer has spread into or through the bladder.

  • Locally advanced

    The cancer has spread outside the bladder into nearby tissues, the prostate, vagina, ovaries, womb or back passage (rectum). It may also be in one of the lymph nodes in the pelvis, near to the bladder.

  • Advanced

    The cancer has spread from the bladder to other parts of the body.

We have more information about treating bladder cancer.

After bladder cancer treatment

After your treatment, you will have regular check-ups. These are usually every few months to start with. If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.

You may get anxious between appointments. This is natural. It may help to get support from family, friends or a support organisation.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you would like to talk, you can:

If the cancer comes back

If the cancer comes back, you can usually have more treatment. The type of treatment you have will depend on where it has come back and the treatment you had before. Your doctor will talk to you about the treatment that is best for your situation and ask about your preferences.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and wellbeing and help your body recover.

Reviewed: 30 November 2018
Reviewed: 30/11/2018
Next review: 30 November 2021
Next review: 30/11/2021

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.