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Bladder Cancer Treatment

Details of the most common treatment options for bladder cancer are listed below, followed by an outline of general approaches to treatment according to the stage of the cancer. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type, stage, and grade of bladder cancer; possible side effects; and the patient’s preferences and overall health. The team of the doctors may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care.


Surgery is the removal of the tumor and surrounding tissue during an operation. There are different types of surgery for bladder cancer, and the most beneficial option usually depends on the stage and grade of the disease. Surgical options to treat bladder cancer include:

  • Transurethral bladder tumor resection (TURBT). This procedure is used for diagnosis and staging, as well as treatment. During TURBT, a surgeon inserts a cystoscope through the urethra into the bladder and removes the tumor using a tool with a small wire loop or using a laser or fulguration (high-energy electricity). Patients usually receive a local anaesthesia to make the surgery comfortable.

    For patients with non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer, TURBT may be able to eliminate the cancer. However, the doctor may recommend additional treatments to prevent cancer recurrence, such as intravesical (into the bladder) chemotherapy or immunotherapy. For patients with muscle-invasive bladder cancer, additional treatments involving surgery to remove the bladder or, less commonly, radiation therapy are necessary.
  • Cystectomy. A radical cystectomy is the removal of the whole bladder and possibly nearby tissues and organs. For men, the prostate and urethra also may be removed. For women, the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and part of the vagina also may be removed. In addition, lymph nodes in the pelvis are removed for both men and women. This is called a pelvic lymph node dissection. A thorough pelvic lymph node dissection is the most accurate way to find cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes. Rarely, for some specific cancers, it may appropriate to remove only part of the bladder, which is called partial cystectomy.

    During a laparoscopic cystectomy, the surgeon makes several small incisions (cuts) instead of the one larger incision used for traditional surgery. The surgeon then uses telescoping equipment to remove the bladder. The surgeon must make an incision to remove the bladder and surrounding tissue. This type of operation requires a surgeon who is very experienced in minimally invasive surgery.
  • Urinary Diversion. If the bladder is removed, the doctor will create a new way to pass urine out of the body by using a section of the small intestine or colon to divert urine to a stoma or ostomy (an opening) on the outside of the body. The patient will need to wear a bag attached to the stoma to collect and drain urine.

    Increasingly, surgeons can use part of the small or large intestine to make a urinary reservoir, which is a storage pouch that sits inside the body. With these procedures, the patient does not need a urinary bag and can have a better quality of life. For some patients, the surgeon is able to connect the pouch to the urethra, creating what is called a neobladder, so the patient can pass urine out of the body normally. However, the patient may need to insert a thin tube called a catheter if urine does not empty through the neobladder. Also, patients with a neobladder will no longer have the urge to urinate and will need to learn to urinate on a consistent schedule.

    For other patients, the pouch is connected to the skin on the abdomen or umbilicus through a small stoma, which creates a type of continent urinary reservoir. This means urine will stay in the reservoir until the patient drains the pouch and no urinary pad is needed. The pouch is drained by inserting a catheter through the small stoma and then removing the catheter.

    Living without the bladder can affect a patient’s quality of life. Finding ways to keep all, or part, of the bladder is an important treatment goal, as long as the patient’s prognosis isn’t affected. For some patients with muscle-invasive bladder cancer, certain treatment plans involving chemotherapy and radiation therapy may be used as an alternative to removing the bladder.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by stopping the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. A chemotherapy regimen typically consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive one drug at a time or combinations of different drugs at the same time.

There are two types of chemotherapy that may be used to treat bladder cancer. The type the doctor recommends and when it is given depends on the stage of the cancer.

Intravesical chemotherapy.Intravesical (local) chemotherapy is usually given by a urologist. During this type of therapy, drugs are delivered into the bladder through a catheter that has been inserted through the urethra. Local treatment only destroys superficial tumor cells that come in contact with the solution. It cannot reach tumor cells in the bladder wall or tumor cells that have spread to other organs.

Systemic chemotherapy. Systemic (whole body) chemotherapy is usually prescribed by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medication. Systemic chemotherapy is delivered through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Common ways to give chemotherapy include an intravenous (IV) tube placed into a vein using a needle or in a pill or capsule that is swallowed (orally).


Immunotherapy, also called biological therapy, is designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation therapy given from a machine outside the body. When radiation therapy is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy. A radiation therapy regimen (schedule) usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time.

Radiation therapy is usually not used by itself as a primary treatment for bladder cancer, but it may be given in combination with chemotherapy. However, some patients who cannot receive chemotherapy might receive radiation therapy alone. The combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy may be used to treat cancer that is located only in the bladder for the following reasons:

  • To destroy any remaining tumor after TURBT while sparing the bladder
  • To relieve symptoms caused by a tumor, such as pain, bleeding, or blockage
  • To treat a metastasis located in one area, such as the brain or bone

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