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What is bladder cancer?

Bladder cancer begins when cells in the inner lining of the bladder become abnormal. This causes them to grow and divide out of control. As the cancer grows, it may start to spread into the bladder wall. Some of these cancer cells can also break off and travel to other parts of the body.

The treatment for bladder cancer depends on how invasive it is – that is, how far the cancer has grown into the layers of the bladder, and whether there are any signs of cancer outside the bladder.

Non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer (NMIBC) – The cancer cells are found only in the inner lining of the bladder (urothelium) or the next layer of tissue (lamina propria) and haven’t grown into the deeper layers of the bladder wall. These cancers can be classed as low, medium or high risk depending on how they look when examined under a microscope.

Muscle-invasive bladder cancer (MIBC) – The cancer has spread beyond the urothelium and lamina propria into the layer of muscle (muscularis propria), or sometimes through the bladder wall into the surrounding fatty tissue. These cancers can sometimes spread to lymph nodes close to the bladder.

Advanced bladder cancer – The cancer has spread (metastasised) outside of the bladder into other organs of the body.

What are the different types of bladder cancer?

There are three main types of bladder cancer. They are named after the type of cell the cancer starts in.

urothelial carcinomaMost bladder cancers (80–90%) are urothelial carcinomas. This type starts in the urothelial cells lining the bladder wall and is also known as transitional cell carcinoma (TCC). Urothelial carcinoma can sometimes occur in the ureters and kidneys.
squamous cell carcinomaThis type starts in thin, flat cells in the lining of the bladder. It accounts for 1–2% of all bladder cancers and is more likely to be invasive.
adenocarcinomaThis cancer develops from the glandular cells in the bladder. It makes up about 1% of all bladder cancers and is likely to be invasive.

There are also rarer types of bladder cancer. These include sarcomas, which start in the muscle, and aggressive forms called small cell carcinoma, plasmacytoid carcinoma and micropapillary carcinoma.

How common is bladder cancer?

Each year, almost 2800 Australians are diagnosed with bladder cancer. Most people diagnosed with bladder cancer are 60 or older. Men are three times more likely than women to be diagnosed with bladder cancer. About 1 in every 108 men will be diagnosed with bladder cancer before the age of 75, making it one of the top 10 most common cancers in men. For women, the chance is about 1 in 394. However, women are often diagnosed with bladder cancer at a more advanced stage.

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Understanding Bladder Cancer

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed in February 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Dickon Hayne, UWA Medical School, The University of Western Australia, and Head, Urology, South Metropolitan Health Service, WA; BEAT Bladder Cancer Australia; Dr Anne Capp, Senior Staff Specialist, Radiation Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Marc Diocera, Genitourinary Nurse Consultant, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Peter Heathcote, Senior Urologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Adjunct Professor, Australian Prostate Cancer Research Centre, QLD; Melissa Le Mesurier, Consumer; Dr James Lynam, Medical Oncologist Staff Specialist, Calvary Mater Newcastle and The University of Newcastle, NSW; John McDonald, Consumer; Michael Twycross, Consumer; Rosemary Watson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria.