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:
- a urologist – a surgeon specialising in treating conditions affecting the urinary tract
- a clinical oncologist – a specialist in chemotherapy and radiotherapy
- a pathologist – a specialist in diseased tissue
- a radiologist – a specialist in detecting disease using imaging techniques
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:
- the number of tumours present in your bladder
- whether the tumours are larger than 3cm (1 inch) in diameter
- whether you've had bladder cancer before
- the grade of the cancer cells
These treatments are discussed in more detail below.
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.
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.
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:
- a course of Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) treatment – using a variant of the BCG vaccine
- an operation to remove your bladder (cystectomy)
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:
- a frequent need to urinate
- pain when urinating
- blood in your urine (haematuria)
- flu-like symptoms, such as tiredness, fever and aching
- urinary tract infections
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:
- an operation to remove your bladder (cystectomy)
- radiotherapy with a radiosensitiser
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:
- inflammation of the bladder (cystitis)
- tightening of the vagina (in women), which can make having sex painful
- erectile dysfunction (in men)
- loss of pubic hair
- difficulty passing urine
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:
- treatment is carried out in one go
- you won't need regular cystoscopies after treatment, although other less invasive tests may be needed
The cons of having a radical cystectomy include:
- it can take up to 3 months to fully recover
- a risk of general surgical complications, such as pain, infection and bleeding
- a risk of complications from the use of general anaesthetic
- an alternative way of passing urine out of your body needs to be created, which may involve an external bag
- a high risk of erectile dysfunction in men (estimated at around 90%) as a result of nerve damage
- after surgery, some women may find sex uncomfortable, as their vagina may be smaller
- a small chance of a fatal complication, such as a heart attack, stroke or deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
The pros of having radiotherapy include:
- there's no need to have surgery, which is often an important consideration for people in poor health
- your bladder function may not be affected, as your bladder isn't removed
- there's less chance of causing erectile dysfunction (around 30%)
The cons of having radiotherapy include:
- you'll require regular sessions of radiotherapy for 4 to 7 weeks
- short-term side effects are common, such as diarrhoea, tiredness and inflammation of the bladder (cystitis)
- a small chance of permanently damaging the bladder, which could lead to problems urinating
- women may experience a narrowed vagina, making sex difficult and uncomfortable
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:
- before radiotherapy and surgery to shrink the size of any tumours
- in combination with radiotherapy before surgery (chemoradiation)
- to slow the spread of incurable advanced bladder cancer (palliative chemotherapy)
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:
- hair loss
- lack of appetite
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:
- treatments to relieve cancer symptoms
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.
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:
- radiotherapy to treat painful urination, blood in urine, frequently needing to urinate or pain in your pelvic area
- treatment to drain your kidneys, if they become blocked and cause lower back pain
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.