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Health library

Understanding bladder cancer

Most cases of bladder cancer don't have a clear cause. If the disease is suspected, many tests can help detect it or rule it out.

Bladder cancer is the sixth-most common cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When it's found and treated early, the chances for survival are very good.

Risk factors

Although the exact causes of bladder cancer are not known, there are several factors that increase a person's chances of developing it.

According to the American Cancer Society, risk factors for bladder cancer include:

Smoking. Smokers are at least three times more likely to get bladder cancer than those who don't smoke. Chemicals from tobacco smoke enter the bloodstream. They are filtered through the kidneys and pass into the urine and bladder, where they can damage cells and increase the risk of cancer.

Age. About 9 out of 10 people who have bladder cancer are older than 55.

Being male. Men are more likely to get bladder cancer than women.

Chemicals. Chemicals used in the dye, rubber, leather, textile, paint and print industries have been linked with bladder cancer. It's important for people who work in these industries to follow all recommended safety procedures to reduce their exposure to these chemicals. Painters, hairdressers, machinists and truck drivers also have higher-than-normal rates of bladder cancer.

Race. Whites have higher rates of bladder cancer than African Americans, Hispanics and Asians.

Chronic, or long-standing, bladder problems. Infections and kidney and bladder stones have been linked with bladder cancer. But whether they cause this disease is not clear.

A past bladder cancer. If you've had a bladder cancer before, you're at higher risk for another bladder cancer.

Birth defects. Some birth defects that affect the structure of the bladder can increase the risk of bladder cancer.

Genetics. Bladder cancer runs in some families.

Treatment for other cancers. People who have had radiation therapy to the pelvis or certain types of chemotherapy drugs are more likely to develop bladder cancer.

Arsenic. Arsenic in drinking water increases bladder cancer risk.

Not drinking fluids. People who drink lots of fluids have lower rates of bladder cancer, possibly because they also empty their bladders frequently, which means chemicals don't sit in their bladders for long periods.

How bladder cancer is found

Blood in the urine or changes in bladder habits—needing to urinate more often or feeling as if you need to urinate but can't—may be signs of bladder cancer. But these problems may have other causes as well. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

If a doctor suspects bladder cancer, one or more tests may be done to look for signs of the disease:

A physical exam and medical history. These can uncover physical signs and risk factors.

Urine culture. Urine may be tested to rule out infection as the cause of bladder symptoms.

Urine cytology. Urine or cells from the bladder are examined for signs of cancer.

Intravenous pyelogram (IVP) or retrograde pyelography. Both of these tests use dye, along with specialized x-rays, to create detailed images of the kidneys, bladder and nearby organs.

Cystoscopy. A slender tube with a lens and light is placed in the bladder through the urethra, the small tube that drains urine from the bladder. This allows the doctor to look inside the bladder.

Biopsy. A sample of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other imaging tests. These may be done to see if cancer has spread to other organs.

Finding it early

A doctor may recommend screening tests to people at high risk for bladder cancer. But for most people, reporting unusual bladder symptoms to a doctor is the best way to detect this cancer quickly.

Reviewed 10/19/2023

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