Most of the time, initial treatment of bladder cancer is based on the tumor’s clinical stage, which is how deep it is thought to have grown into the bladder wall and whether it has spread beyond the bladder. Other factors, such as the size and grade of the tumor and a person’s overall health, can also affect treatment options.
Treating stage 0 bladder cancer
Stage 0 bladder cancer includes non-invasive papillary carcinoma (Ta) and flat non-invasive carcinoma (Tis). In either case, the cancer has not invaded the bladder wall beyond the inner layer.
This early stage of bladder cancer is most often treated with transurethral resection (TURBT). This may be followed either by observation (close follow-up without further treatment) or by intravesical therapy to try to keep the cancer from coming back.
Of the intravesical treatments, immunotherapy with Bacille-Calmette Guerin (BCG) seems to be better than chemotherapy at both keeping cancers from coming back and from getting worse. But it also tends to have more side effects.
Stage 0 bladder cancers rarely need to be treated with more extensive surgery. Cystectomy (removal of the bladder) is considered only when there are many superficial cancers or when a superficial cancer continues to grow (or seems to be spreading) despite treatment.
For low-grade non-invasive papillary (Ta) tumors, the options after TURBT include observation, a single dose of intravesical chemotherapy (usually with mitomycin) within a day of surgery, or weekly intravesical chemo, starting a few weeks after surgery. If the cancer comes back, the treatments can be repeated.
High-grade non-invasive papillary (Ta) tumors are more likely to come back after treatment, so intravesical Bacille-Calmette Guerin (BCG) is often recommended after surgery. Another option is intravesical chemotherapy with mitomycin. Either one is usually started several weeks after surgery and is given every week for several weeks. A third option is close observation without intravesical treatment.
For flat non-invasive (Tis) tumors, BCG is the treatment of choice after surgery. Patients with these tumors often get 6 weekly treatments of intravesical BCG, starting a few weeks after TUR. Some doctors recommend repeating BCG treatment every 3 to 6 months.
Follow-up and outlook after treatment
After treatment for any stage 0 cancer, close follow-up is recommended, with cystoscopy about every 3 to 6 months for a least a couple of years to look for signs of the cancer coming back or for new bladder tumors.
The outlook for people with stage 0a (non-invasive papillary) bladder cancer is excellent. These cancers are nearly always cured with treatment. During long-term follow-up care, more superficial cancers are often found in the bladder or elsewhere in the urinary system. Although these new cancers do need to be treated, they rarely are deeply invasive or life threatening.
The long-term outlook for stage 0is (flat non-invasive) bladder cancer is not quite as good as for stage 0a cancers. These cancers have a higher risk of coming back, and may return as a more serious cancer that is growing into deeper layers of the bladder or has spread to other tissues.
Treating stage I bladder cancer
Stage I bladder cancers have grown into the connective tissue layer of the bladder wall but have not reached the muscle layer.
Transurethral resection (TURBT) is typically the first treatment for these cancers, but it is done to help determine the extent of the cancer rather than to try to cure it. If no other treatment is given, many patients will later get a new bladder cancer, which will often be more advanced. This is more likely to happen if the first cancer is high grade.
Even if the cancer is found to be low grade, a second TURBT is often recommended several weeks later. If the doctor then feels that all of the cancer has been removed, intravesical BCG or mitomycin is usually given. (Less often, close follow-up alone might be an option.) If not all of the cancer was removed, options include either intravesical BCG or cystectomy (removal of part or all of the bladder).
If the cancer is high grade, if many tumors are present, or if the tumor is very large when it is first found, radical cystectomy may be recommended.
For people who aren’t healthy enough for a cystectomy, radiation therapy (often along with chemo) might be an option for treatment, although the chances for cure might not be as good.
Treating stage II bladder cancer
These cancers have invaded the muscle layer of the bladder wall. Transurethral resection (TURBT) is typically the first treatment for these cancers, but it is done to help determine the extent of the cancer rather than to try to cure it.
When the cancer has invaded the muscle, radical cystectomy (removal of the bladder) is the standard treatment. Lymph nodes near the bladder are often removed as well. If cancer is in only one part of the bladder, some patients can be treated with a partial cystectomy instead. Only a small number of patients are good candidates for this.
Although at this stage the cancer has not been detected outside the bladder, in some cases there may already be tiny deposits of cancer growing elsewhere in the body. For this reason, chemotherapy is often given either before surgery (neoadjuvant chemo) or after surgery (adjuvant chemo) to lower the chance the cancer will come back.
Many doctors prefer to give chemo before surgery because it has been shown to help patients live longer than surgery alone. When chemo is given first, surgery is delayed. This is not a problem if the chemo shrinks the bladder cancer, but it might be harmful if the tumor continues to grow during chemo.
Another option for some patients may be a second (and more extensive) transurethral resection (TURBT), followed by radiation and chemotherapy. Some people may prefer this because it lets them keep their bladder, but it’s not clear if the outcomes are as good as they are after cystectomy, so not all doctors agree with this approach. If this treatment is used you will need frequent and careful follow-up exams. Some experts recommend a repeat cystoscopy and biopsy during treatment with chemo and radiation. If cancer is found in the biopsy sample, a cystectomy will likely be needed.
For patients who can’t have a major operation because of other serious health problems, TURBT, radiation, chemotherapy, or some combination of these may options.
Treating stage III bladder cancer
These cancers have reached the outside of the bladder and might have grown into nearby tissues or organs.
Transurethral resection (TURBT) is typically done first to help determine how far the cancer has grown. Radical cystectomy (removal of the bladder and nearby lymph nodes) is then the standard treatment. Partial cystectomy is seldom an option for stage III cancers.
Neoadjuvant chemotherapy (chemo) is often given before surgery. It can shrink the tumor, which may make surgery easier. This can be especially useful for T4a tumors, which have grown outside the bladder. The chemo may also kill any cancer cells that could already have spread to other areas of the body. This approach helps patients live longer than cystectomy alone. When chemo is given first, surgery to remove the bladder is delayed. The delay is not a problem if the chemo causes the bladder cancer to shrink, but it can be harmful if the tumor continues to grow during chemotherapy.
Some patients get chemo after surgery (adjuvant treatment) to kill any areas of cancer cells left after surgery that are too small to see. Chemo given after cystectomy may help patients stay cancer-free longer, but so far it’s not clear if it helps them live longer.
An option for some patients with single, small tumors might be treatment with a second (and more extensive) transurethral resection (TURBT) followed by a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. If this isn’t successful and cancer is found when cystoscopy is repeated, the patient might need cystectomy.
For patients who can’t have a major operation because of other serious health problems, treatment options might include TURBT, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or some combination of these.
Treating stage IV bladder cancer
These cancers have reached the abdominal or pelvic wall (T4b tumors) or have spread to nearby lymph nodes or distant parts of the body. Stage IV cancers are very hard to get rid of completely.
In most cases surgery (even radical cystectomy) can’t remove all of the cancer, so treatment is usually aimed at slowing the cancer’s growth and spread to help you live longer and feel better. If you and your doctor discuss surgery as treatment option, be sure you understand the goal of the operation – whether it is to try to cure the cancer, to help you live longer, or to help prevent or relieve symptoms from the cancer – before deciding on treatment.
For stage IV bladder cancers that have not spread to distant sites, chemotherapy (with or without radiation) is usually the first treatment. If the cancer shrinks in response to treatment, a cystectomy might be an option. Patients who can’t tolerate chemo (because of other health problems) might be treated with radiation therapy or with an immunotherapy drug such as atezolizumab or pembrolizumab.
For stage IV bladder cancers that have spread to distant areas, chemo is usually the first treatment, sometimes along with radiation therapy. Patients who can’t tolerate chemo (because of other health problems) might be treated with radiation therapy or with an immunotherapy drug such as atezolizumab or pembrolizumab. Urinary diversion without cystectomy is sometimes done to prevent or relieve a blockage of urine that could otherwise cause severe kidney damage.
Because treatment is unlikely to cure these cancers, taking part in a clinical trial may offer you access to newer forms of treatment that might help you live longer or relieve symptoms.
Treating bladder cancer that progresses or recurs
If cancer continues to grow during treatment (progresses) or comes back (recurs), your treatment options will depend on where and how much the cancer has spread, what treatments you have already had, and on your health and desire for more treatment. It’s important that you understand the goal of any further treatment – if it’s to try to cure the cancer, to slow its growth, or to help relieve symptoms – as well as the likelihood of benefits and risks.
For example, non-invasive bladder cancer often comes back in the bladder. The new cancer may be found either in the same site as the original cancer or at other sites in the bladder. These tumors are often treated the same way as the first tumor. But if the tumor keeps coming back, the patient may need a cystectomy (removal of the bladder) at some point.
Cancers that recur in distant parts of the body can be harder to remove with surgery and might require other treatments, such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or radiation therapy. For more on dealing with a recurrence, see the website section Understanding Recurrence.
At some point, it may become clear that standard treatments are no longer controlling the cancer. If you want to continue getting treatment, you might think about taking part in a clinical trial of newer bladder cancer treatments. While these are not always the best option for every person, they may benefit you as well as future patients.