Bladder Cancer & Incontinence: Conditions & Treatments

Bladder Cancer & Incontinence: Conditions & Treatments


Bladder cancer affects both men and women and about 10,000 people are diagnosed with bladder cancer every year.

The risk of developing bladder cancer increases with age.

The condition is more common in older adults, with the average age at diagnosis being 68 years old. Rates of bladder cancer are four times higher in men than in women, possibly because in the past men were more likely to smoke and work in the manufacturing industry

Bladder cancer is the seventh most common cancer in the UK. It is 3–4 times more common in men than in women. In the UK in 2011, it was the fourth most common cancer in men and the thirteenth most common in women. The majority of cases occur in people aged over 60. The main risk factor for bladder cancer is increasing age, but smoking and exposure to some industrial chemicals also increase risk.

What is bladder cancer?

Bladder Cancer develops when cells in the bladder grow abnormally, causing them to multiply and divide. More than 90% of bladder cancers form in the bladder lining (the urothelium) and are known as urothelial carcinomas, or transitional cell carcinomas.

If cancer cells stay within the lining of the bladder, it is referred to as a superficial bladder cancer.

Sometimes though, cancer cells can spread to the muscle wall of the bladder, other organs and into lymph nodes. When this happens, it is called invasive bladder cancer and partial or complete removal of the bladder is necessary.

Bladder cancer risk and causes

Although definite causes are unknown at this stage, certain factors are known to be associated with the risk of developing the disease. These include:

  • Smoking — smokers are three to four times more likely to get bladder cancer than non-smokers.
  • Age — the older you are the more susceptible you are
  • Gender — men are three times more likely to develop bladder cancer
  • Exposure to chemicals — especially in the textile, petrochemical and rubber industries
  • Repeated chronic bladder infections — particularly if a catheter is used constantly
  • Treatments for other cancers— including some chemotherapy and radiography treatments

Types of bladder cancer

Non-invasive or invasive

Bladder cancer can be superficial (non-invasive) or invasive. Non-invasive bladder cancer means the cancer is contained in the bladder lining. Invasive bladder describes a cancer that has moved to the bladder muscle wall and possibly beyond. This type of cancer is much harder to treat.

Generally though, there are three main types of bladder cancer, each determined by where the cancer first develops.

Urothelial carcinoma

This is the most common type of bladder cancer with about 90% of all bladder cancers starting from the innermost urothelial layer of the bladder wall. Depending on its shape and how it grows, urothelial cancer can be divided into two subgroups:

  • Papillary urothelial carcinoma – this has slender, finger-like projections and grows towards the hollow centre of the bladder.
  • Flat urothelial carcinoma – this spreads along the inner lining of the bladder. There is about a 50% risk of it developing into an invasive cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma

About 5 out of every 100 (5%) bladder cancers in the UK are squamous cell cancers. It starts in the thin, flat squamous cells lining the bladder. It is more likely to be invasive.


Between 1 and 2 out of every 100 people diagnosed with bladder cancer have this type (1% to 2%). It is a cancer that develops from the cells in the lining of the bladder that produce mucus and is likely to be invasive.

Bladder cancer symptoms

Bladder cancer doesn’t always present itself with definitive symptoms. In fact, it is is often picked up as a result of a routine urine test. Generally though, symptoms may include:

  • Blood in the urine — the most common bladder cancer symptom and may only occur periodically
  • Change of urinary habits — including a need to urinate more often, not being able to urinate when you feel the urge, urinary incontinence or a burning pain when passing urine
  • Back/lower abdomen pain — less common than above, but sometimes this pain has been known to occur with bladder cancer


It’s important to note that if you have any of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that bladder cancer is present. These symptoms are often associated with a bladder or urinary tract infection. Kidney or bladder stones, or an enlargement of the prostate in men, could also cause the presence of blood in your urine. In any event, consult your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of these symptoms.


If your doctor suspects bladder cancer, there are a number of tests available to confirm diagnosis including:

  • urine test — urine is examined under a microscope for cancer cells
  • physical examination — includes the pelvis and other organs
  • cystoscopy and biopsy — involves threading a small flexible telescope through the urethra to take a look at the lining of the bladder and urethra. A small sample is removed for further examination if anything abnormal is detected
  • intravenous pyelogram (IVP) — dye is injected into a vein in the arm and monitored as it travels through the blood to the kidneys to pick up anything unusual
  • CT scans, MRI scans, ultrasound, radioisotope bone scans and X rays — to determine how far the cancer has spread after confirmation of diagnosis

Bladder cancer grading

Bladder cancer grading describes how quickly a cancer might grow. By determining the grade your doctor/specialist can decide how likely the cancer is to come back and what treatment (if any) you need after surgery. 

Low grade

The cells look like normal bladder cells, are slow growing and there is little likelihood of them spreading.

High grade

The cells look abnormal, are growing aggressively and there is a likelihood of them spreading to the muscle wall.


Treatments for bladder cancer vary according on whether the cancer is determined to be non-invasive or invasive.

Non-invasive carcinoma

  • A transurethral resection (using a cytoscope) is performed under a general anaesthetic to remove the cancer. Patients will need regular reviews including check-up cytoscopies (under local anaesthetic) for up to a decade after their initial surgery.
  • Sometimes if there are many tumours or they are aggressive, your specialist may recommend chemotherapy or immunotherapy — usually intravesical chemotherapy. This procedure involves delivering a fluid via a catheter into the bladder once a week for about six weeks. Generally, an anaesthetic is unnecessary and it can be done in outpatients.

Invasive carcinoma

If the bladder cancer is found to be invasive, a partial or complete removal of the bladder, known as cystectomy, is often recommended. This is a lengthy operation performed under general anaesthetic.

After surgery for a cystectomy, urine needs to be expelled from the body in one of the following ways:

  • It can be redirected through the intestinal tissue, known as an ileal conduit, with an opening or ‘stoma’ on the abdominal wall. The patient wears a pouch externally on the skin to collect urine
  • Loops of the patient’s bowel are fashioned into a pouch. This is known as an orthotopic neobladder and there is no change to normal bowel function as the patient continues to pass urine naturally through the urethra.

Should you suffer bladder cancer, a specialist will discuss with you which option is best suited to your circumstances.


It’s very difficult for a doctor to offer a prognosis for bladder cancer largely because effective recovery from the disease depends on a range of different factors including:

  • the type and stage of cancer
  • your age and general health at the time of diagnosis
  • test results
  • the type of cancer you have
  • its stage and grade
  • how well you respond to treatment
  • medical history

Bladder cancer can be effectively treated if found early enough and before it spreads outside the bladder. 

Life after bladder cancer surgery

You should be aware that life after a cystectomy (bladder removal) will be dramatically different.

For men: surgery for bladder cancer ultimately damages nerves to the penis, and the removal of the bladder usually includes the prostate, which results in impotence and infertility.

For women: part of the interior vaginal wall may be removed along with the bladder, which means a narrowing/shortening of the vagina which can cause discomfort during sex. Sometimes, the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus are removed also leading to infertility and immediate menopause.

Living with a urostomy

If you have a cystectomy, the surgeon may create an artificial opening to your urinary system called a urostomy. This involves the diversion of urine through an opening or ‘stoma’ on the abdominal wall, which is then collected in an external pouch. The doctor and stoma nurse will discuss the position of the stoma with you before the operation and how to look after it post operation.

Even though it’s a significant change, with time and patience you’ll find you can resume your regular activities.

Kimberly-Clark makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. This information should be used only as a guide and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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