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Treatment

The treatment options for bladder cancer largely depend on how advanced the cancer is.

Treatments usually differ between early stage, non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer and more advanced muscle-invasive bladder cancer.

Your medical team

All hospitals use multidisciplinary teams to treat bladder cancer. These are teams of specialists that work together to make decisions about the best way to proceed with your treatment.

Members of your team may include:

You should be given the contact details for a clinical nurse specialist, who will be in contact with all members of your medical team. They'll be able to answer questions and support you throughout your treatment.

Deciding what treatment is best for you can be difficult. Your medical team will make recommendations, but remember that the final decision is yours. 

Before discussing your treatment options, you may find it useful to write a list of questions to ask your team.

Non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer

If you've been diagnosed with non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer (stages CIS, Ta and T1), your recommended treatment plan depends on the risk of the cancer returning or spreading beyond the lining of your bladder.

This risk is calculated using a series of factors, including:

These treatments are discussed in more detail below.

Low-risk

Low-risk non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer is treated with transurethral resection of a bladder tumour (TURBT). This procedure may be performed during your first cystoscopy, when tissue samples are taken for testing (see diagnosing bladder cancer).

TURBT is carried out under general anaesthetic. The surgeon uses an instrument called a cystoscope to locate the visible tumours and cut them away from the lining of the bladder. The wounds are sealed (cauterised) using a mild electric current, and you may be given a catheter to drain any blood or debris from your bladder over the next few days.

After surgery, you should be given a single dose of chemotherapy, directly into your bladder, using a catheter. The chemotherapy solution is kept in your bladder for around an hour before being drained away.

Most people are able to leave hospital less than 48 hours after having TURBT and are able to resume normal physical activity within 2 weeks.

You should be offered follow-up appointments at 3 and 9 months to check your bladder, using a cystoscopy. If your cancer returns after 6 months, and is small, you may be offered a treatment called fulguration. This involves using an electric current to destroy the cancer cells.

Intermediate-risk

People with intermediate-risk non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer should be offered a course of at least 6 doses of chemotherapy. The liquid is placed directly into your bladder, using a catheter, and kept there for around an hour before being drained away.

You should be offered follow-up appointments at 3, 9 and 18 months, then once every year. At these appointments, your bladder will be checked using a cystoscopy. If your cancer returns within 5 years, you'll be referred back to a specialist urology team.

Some residue of the chemotherapy medication may be left in your urine after treatment, which could severely irritate your skin. It helps if you urinate while sitting down and that you're careful not to splash yourself or the toilet seat. After passing urine, wash the skin around your genitals with soap and water.

If you're sexually active, it's important to use a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom. This is because the medication may be present in your semen or vaginal fluids, which can cause irritation.

You also shouldn't try to get pregnant or father a child while having chemotherapy for bladder cancer, as the medication can increase the risk of having a child with birth defects.

High-risk

People with high-risk non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer should be offered a second TURBT operation, within 6 weeks of the initial investigation (see diagnosing bladder cancer). A CT scan or an MRI scan may also be required.

Your urologist and clinical nurse specialist will discuss your treatment options with you, which will either be:

The BCG vaccine is passed into your bladder through a catheter and left for 2 hours before being drained away. Most people require weekly treatments over a 6-week period. Common side effects of BCG include:

If BCG treatment doesn't work, or the side effects are too strong, you'll be referred back to a specialist urology team.

You should be offered follow-up appointments every 3 months for the first 2 years, then every 6 months for the next 2 years, then once a year. At these appointments, your bladder will be checked using a cystoscopy.

If you decide to have a cystectomy, your surgeon will need to create an alternative way for urine to leave your body (urinary diversion). Your clinical nurse specialist can discuss your options for the procedure and how the urinary diversion will be created.

Read about the complications of bladder cancer surgery for more information about urinary diversion and sexual problems after surgery.

After having a cystectomy, you should be offered follow-up appointments including a CT scan at 6 and 12 months, and blood tests once a year. Men require an appointment to check their urethra once a year for 5 years.

Muscle-invasive bladder cancer

The recommended treatment plan for muscle-invasive bladder cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread. With T2 and T3 bladder cancer, treatment aims to cure the condition if possible, or at least control it for a long time.

Your urologist, oncologist and clinical nurse specialist will discuss your treatment options with you, which will either be:

Your oncologist should also discuss the possibility of having chemotherapy before either of these treatments (neoadjuvant therapy), if it's suitable for you.

Radiotherapy with a radiosensitiser

Radiotherapy is given by a machine that beams the radiation at the bladder (external radiotherapy). Sessions are usually given on a daily basis for 5 days a week over the course of 4 to 7 weeks. Each session lasts for about 10 to 15 minutes.

A radiosensitiser should also be given alongside radiotherapy for muscle-invasive bladder cancer. This is a medicine which affects the cells of a tumour, to enhance the effect of radiotherapy. It has a much smaller effect on normal tissue.

As well as destroying cancerous cells, radiotherapy can also damage healthy cells, which means it can cause a number of side effects. These include:

Most of these side effects should pass a few weeks after your treatment finishes, although there's a small chance they'll be permanent.

Having radiotherapy directed at your pelvis usually means you'll be infertile for the rest of your life. However, most people treated for bladder cancer are too old to have children, so this isn't usually a problem.

After having radiotherapy for bladder cancer, you should be offered follow-up appointments every 3 months for the first 2 years, then every 6 months for the next 2 years, and every year after that. At these appointments, your bladder will be checked using a cystoscopy

You may also be offered CT scans of your chest, abdomen and pelvis after 6 months, 1 year and 2 years. A CT scan of your urinary tract may be offered every year for 5 years.

Surgery or radiotherapy?

Your medical team may recommend a specific treatment because of your individual circumstances.

For example, someone with a small bladder or many existing urinary symptoms is better suited to surgery. Someone who has a single bladder tumour with normal bladder function is better suited for treatments that preserve the bladder.

However, your input is also important, so you should discuss which treatment is best for you with your medical team.

There are pros and cons of both surgery and radiotherapy.

The pros of having a radical cystectomy include:

The cons of having a radical cystectomy include:

The pros of having radiotherapy include:

The cons of having radiotherapy include:

Chemotherapy

In some cases, chemotherapy may be used during treatment for muscle-invasive bladder cancer. Instead of medication being put directly into your bladder, it's put into a vein in your arm. This is called intravenous chemotherapy and can be used:

There isn't enough evidence to say whether chemotherapy is an effective treatment when it's given after surgery to prevent the cancer returning. It's usually only used this way as part of a clinical trial. See clinical trials for bladder cancer for more information.

Chemotherapy is usually given once a week for 2 weeks followed by a week off. This cycle will be repeated for a few months.

As the chemotherapy medication is being injected into your blood, you'll experience a wider range of side effects than if you were having chemotherapy directly into the bladder. These side effects should stop after the treatment has finished.

Chemotherapy weakens your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infection. It's important to report any symptoms of a potential infection, such as a high temperature, persistent cough or reddening of the skin, to your medical team. Avoid close contact with people who are known to have an infection.

Other side effects of chemotherapy can include:

Advanced or metastatic bladder cancer

The recommended treatment plan for locally advanced or metastatic bladder cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread. Your oncologist should discuss your treatment options with you, which may include:

Chemotherapy

If you receive a course of chemotherapy, you'll be given a combination of drugs to help relieve the side effects of treatment. Treatment may be stopped if chemotherapy isn't helping, or a second course may be offered.

Immunotherapy

This medicine is for adults with advanced or metastatic bladder cancer. It works by helping the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells.

Relieving cancer symptoms

You may be offered treatment to relieve any cancer symptoms. This may include:

Palliative or supportive care

If your cancer is at an advanced stage and can't be cured, your medical team should discuss how the cancer will progress and which treatments are available to ease the symptoms. 

You can be referred to a palliative care team, who can provide support and practical help, including pain relief.

Read more about end of life care.