Bladder cancer may not be on your radar even if you’re vigilant about getting routine GYN care. After all, it’s far more common among men than women, and the majority of cases affect patients over age 65. However, don’t let those stats keep you from learning to spot the warning signs.
While bladder cancer isn’t one of the most common cancers in women, about 18,000 women are diagnosed with bladder cancer every year in the United States (Source: CDC – Bladder Cancer). The Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network reports that women are more likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer at an advanced stage because they may not be on the lookout for early signs.
Facts About Bladder Cancer in Women
While bladder cancer typically hasn’t been associated with women, it is important to understand the unique way that bladder cancer does affect women, and why it’s critical that bladder cancer isn’t overlooked.
- Approximately 50% of cases are diagnosed while the cancer is still in the bladder. However, that percentage is lower in women, because symptoms are often overlooked.
- Women have a 1 in 89 chance of developing bladder cancer in their lifetime (Source: American Cancer Society – Key Statistics for Bladder Cancer). However, bladder cancer in women is on the rise.
- Approximately 90% of bladder cancer cases are in individuals over 55 years old, so it is important to be extra vigilant of early signs of bladder cancer as you age.
- Bladder cancer has a high recurrence rate. If you have been diagnosed with bladder cancer, it is important to continue to receive regular exams in order to handle any potential recurrence.
Early Signs of Bladder Cancer in Women
Knowing the signs and symptoms can help you get diagnosed sooner, which may improve your prognosis. Here are five warning signs to watch for:
- Blood in the urine (hematuria). This is the most common early symptom of bladder cancer and typically the first sign of bladder cancer that is seen. It’s easy for women to overlook because it’s typically painless and can go weeks or even months between occurrences. Many women ignore this symptom because they attribute it to menstruation or menopause. If you are unsure if there is an issue, your best bet is to consult a urologist
- UTI-like symptoms. Bladder cancer can be mistaken for a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) because many of the symptoms overlap. Patients may experience increased frequency and urgency of urination, pain with urination, or urinary incontinence. If you’ve noticed any urinary problems—you have to go all the time, or you feel like you have to go but can’t, or you have a hard time emptying your bladder—or if antibiotics don’t seem to be helping your UTI symptoms, talk to your doctor.
- Unexplained pain. More advanced bladder cancers are often associated with pain. Pain can occur in the flank area, abdomen, or pelvis. Patients can also develop pain in their bones if the cancer has spread to their bones. If you’re having aches and pains in those areas, tell your doctor—especially if you’ve also noticed spotting or UTI symptoms.
- Decreased appetite. Appetite loss is a common cancer symptom, and bladder cancer is no exception. If the cancer has grown or spread, you might experience weight loss or feel tired and weak. Of course, there are plenty of other things that can mess with your appetite, so don’t automatically assume the worst—but do talk to your doctor about it if it persists.
- Postmenopausal uterine bleeding. Any blood or spotting that you notice after menopause could be a symptom of bladder cancer or some other underlying issue. Similarly to blood in the urine, it may be easy to overlook, but it is recommended that you see your urologist to be safe.
Risk Factors of Bladder Cancer
By far, smoking is the biggest risk factor to be concerned about when it comes to bladder cancer. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 50% of women diagnosed with bladder cancer are smokers. Because the rate of occurrence is so much higher for smokers, if you notice any of the above symptoms and you smoke, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
Another major risk factor is previously having bladder cancer. Bladder cancer has a 50-80% recurrence rate, which is among the highest of any form of cancer. This is why it is imperative to continue to see your physician and be on the lookout for any symptoms of bladder cancer if you’ve had it before. When in doubt, get it checked out.
Age is another major factor. The average age of diagnosis in women is 73. Any woman over the age of 55 years old should keep an extra eye out for symptoms.
When to Make an Appointment with Your Urologist
Bladder cancer may be overlooked in women because it’s easy to chalk up symptoms to a stubborn UTI or normal vaginal spotting. Unfortunately, this means women are often diagnosed after the cancer has spread and become harder to treat. So if you’re worried, don’t just write off your symptoms. Call your doctor to determine if it’s a minor infection or something more serious. If it is bladder cancer, it’s easier to treat if you catch it early.
If you would like to talk to a urologist, you can see if we have a location near you or you can contact us to ask a question or make an appointment.