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Bladder Cancer
Treatment

People with bladder cancer have many treatment options, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or biological therapy. Some patients may receive a combination of therapies.

Surgery

Surgery is a common treatment for bladder cancer. The type of surgery depends largely on the stage and grade of the tumor. Your doctor can explain each type of surgery and discuss which is most suitable for you.

  • Transurethral resection — The doctor may treat early or superficial bladder cancer with transurethral resection (TUR). During TUR, the doctor inserts a cystoscope into the bladder through the urethra. The doctor then uses a tool with a small wire loop on the end to remove the cancer and burn away any remaining cancer cells with an electric current, called fulguration. You may need to be in the hospital and may need anesthesia. After TUR, patients may also have chemotherapy or biological therapy. (See below.)
  • Radical cystectomy — For invasive bladder cancer, the most common type of surgery is radical cystectomy. Your doctor also may choose this type of surgery when superficial cancer involves a large part of the bladder.

    Radical cystectomy is the removal of the entire bladder, the nearby lymph nodes, part of the urethra and the nearby organs that may contain cancer cells. In men, the nearby organs that are removed are the prostate, seminal vesicles and part of the vas deferens. In women, the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and part of the vagina are removed.
  • Segmental cystectomy — In some cases, the doctor may remove only part of the bladder in a procedure called segmental cystectomy. The doctor chooses this type of surgery when a patient has a low-grade cancer that has invaded the bladder wall in just one area.
  • Radiation Therapy

    Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Like surgery, radiation therapy is local therapy. It affects cancer cells only in the treated area. A small number of patients may have radiation therapy before surgery to shrink the tumor. Others may have it after surgery to kill cancer cells that may remain in the area. Sometimes, patients who cannot have surgery have radiation therapy instead.

    Doctors use external radiation therapy to treat bladder cancer. A large machine outside the body aims radiation at the tumor area. Most people receiving external radiation are treated five days a week for five to seven weeks as an outpatient. This schedule helps protect healthy cells and tissues by spreading out the total dose of radiation.

    Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Your doctor may use one drug or a combination of drugs.

    If you have superficial bladder cancer, your doctor may use intravesical chemotherapy after removing the cancer with TUR. This is local therapy. A tube or catheter is inserted through the urethra and puts liquid drugs in the bladder. The drugs remain in the bladder for several hours. They mainly affect cells in the bladder. Usually, patients have this treatment once a week for several weeks. Sometimes, treatments continue once or several times a month for up to a year.

    If the cancer has deeply invaded the bladder or spread to lymph nodes or other organs, your doctor may give drugs through a vein. This treatment is called intravenous chemotherapy. It is systemic therapy, meaning that the drugs flow through the bloodstream to nearly every part of the body. The drugs are usually given in cycles so that a recovery period follows every treatment period.

    You may have chemotherapy alone or combined with surgery, radiation therapy or both. Usually chemotherapy is an outpatient treatment given at the hospital, clinic or at your doctor's office. Depending on which drugs are given and your general health, you may need a short hospital stay.

    Biological therapy

    Biological therapy, also called immunotherapy, uses the body's natural ability or immune system to fight cancer. Biological therapy is most often used after TUR for superficial bladder cancer. Drugs are delivered directly into the bladder using a catheter. This helps prevent the cancer from coming back.

    Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.