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Bladder cancer


What is bladder cancer?

Bladder cancer is when abnormal cells in the bladder grow and divide in an uncontrolled way.

There are different types: 

  • urothelial carcinoma, formally known as transitional cell carcinoma, is the most common form of bladder cancer (90%) and starts in the urothelial cells in the bladder wall’s innermost layer
  • squamous cell carcinoma begins in the thin, flat cells that line the bladder
  • adenocarcinoma is a rare form which starts in mucus-producing cells in the bladder.

Over 2400 new cases of bladder cancer are diagnosed in Australia every year, more commonly in people aged over 60. It is significantly more common in men than in women. 

Bladder cancer symptoms

The most common symptom of bladder cancer is blood in the urine (haematuria), which usually occurs suddenly and is generally not painful.

Other less common symptoms include:

  • problems emptying the bladder
  • a burning feeling when passing urine
  • need to pass urine often
  • lower abdominal or back pain.

Causes of bladder cancer

The exact causes of bladder cancer are not known, however factors that put some people at higher risk are:

  • smoking
  • workplace exposure to certain chemicals used in dyeing in the textile, petrochemical and rubber industries
  • use of the chemotherapy drug cyclophosphamide
  • diabetes
  • family history
  • chronic inflammation of the bladder.

Screening for bladder cancer

There is currently no screening for bladder cancer available.

Diagnosis for bladder cancer

A number of tests are used to diagnose bladder cancer including:

Blood tests

Blood tests can check you general health.

Urine tests

Urine tests check for blood, bacteria and any cancer or pre-cancer cells.

CT scans

CT scans produce three-dimensional pictures of several organs at the same including the bladder which can help in the detection of any tumours.

Ultrasound scans

Ultrasound scans produce pictures of the organ, and can show the presence and size of cancer. Small tumours may be difficult to detect by ultrasound.

Cystoscopy and biopsy

A cystoscopy is the main procedure used to diagnose bladder cancer by examining the inside of the bladder. If abnormal tissues are detected, a tissue sample (biopsy) will then be taken. 


Treatment for bladder cancer


A CT scan, bone (radioisotope) scan and chest x-ray are done to determine the extent of the cancer (its stage).

The most common staging system used for bladder cancer is the TNM system, which describes the stage of the cancer from stage I to stage IV.

Types of treatment

Superficial bladder cancers are treated with surgery and/or immunotherapy, or sometimes chemotherapy instilled into the bladder.


Surgery (transurethral resection) is done using a cystoscope which has a wire loop which the doctor uses to remove any tumours. Other ways to kill the cancer cells can include burning the base of the tumour or high-energy laser to damage or kill the cells


Non-invasive bladder cancers an also be treated with immunotherapy. A vaccine called Bacillus Calmetter-Guérin, developed to prevent tuberculosis, can be used to stimulate the immune system in order to stop or delay bladder cancer.


Chemotherapy drugs are used to destroy or damage cancer cells. For non-invasive bladder cancers, chemotherapy drugs are instilled into the bladder (intravesical chemotherapy).

Invasive bladder cancers are most commonly treated with surgery, although radiotherapy is an alternative treatment. In some cases chemotherapy may be added.

If surgery is not an option, the cancer may be treated with radiotherapy, with or without chemotherapy, or chemotherapy alone (platinum and gemcitabine).

Treatment team

Depending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different specialist staff, such as:

  • urologist, who specialises in surgery of the urinary system
  • radiation oncologist, who prescribes and coordinates radiotherapy treatment
  • medical oncologist, who prescribes and coordinates the chemotherapy
  • cancer care coordinators and nurses
  • other allied health professionals such as a dietician, social worker and counsellor. 

Prognosis for bladder cancer

It is not possible for a doctor to predict the exact course of a disease as it will depend on the person’s individual circumstances. However, your doctor may give you a prognosis, the likely outcome of your disease, based on the type of cancer you have, your test results, the rate of tumour growth, as well as your age, fitness and medical history.

Bladder cancer can be effectively treated if it is found early, before it spreads outside the bladder. The five year survival rate for Australians with bladder cancer is 58%.

In 2012, there were 1038 deaths caused by bladder cancer in Australia.

Preventing bladder cancer  

While it is not possible to prevent bladder cancer, it is possible to reduce your risks such as not smoking or quitting smoking, and avoiding exposure to chemicals listed above.


Understanding Bladder Cancer, Cancer Council Australia © 2014. Last medical review of this booklet: May 2014.

This online extract produced: 23 September 2015.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012. Cancer survival and prevalence in Australia: period estimates from 1982 to 2010. Cancer Series no. 69. Cat. no. CAN 65. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australasian Association of Cancer Registries 2012. Cancer in Australia: an overview, 2012. Cancer series no. 74. Cat. no. CAN 70. Canberra: AIHW.


For more information

For support and information on cancer and cancer-related issues, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 (cost of a local call). This is a confidential service.


Includes additional information on treatment, making decisions around treatment and managing side effects of treatment.

Also included, detailed information on looking after yourself during and after treatment, and links to both professional and community support. 

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This page was last updated on: Friday, October 2, 2015