Bladder cancer has long been considered a disease of older men. Though it is more prevalent in men, studies have shown that women are more likely to present more advanced tumors and have a worse prognosis than men at almost every stage of the disease. According to a report published by the National Cancer Institute, the survival rate for women with bladder cancer lags behind that of men at all stages of the disease. African-American women, particularly have poor outcomes when diagnosed with bladder cancer. They present with the highest proportion of advanced and aggressive tumors when compared to African-American men and Caucasian men and women. In addition, the number of women diagnosed with bladder cancer has been increasing.
It is important for women to understand their risks for bladder cancer and know what to ask their doctors. Awareness is the key: in most cases, bladder cancer is treatable, but prompt diagnosis is critical.
Why the disparity?
In many cases, there are significant delays in diagnosing bladder cancer in women. Many women ignore the most basic symptom—blood in the urine—which they may associate with menstruation or menopause and delay reporting this symptom to their doctors. Even after reporting the problem to their doctors, blood in the urine may be initially misdiagnosed as a symptom as post-menopausal bleeding, simple cystitis or as a urinary tract infection. As a result, a bladder cancer diagnosis can be overlooked for a year or more.
What do women need to know?
• Bladder cancer can affect women at any age.
• Smoking is the greatest risk factor. Smokers get bladder cancer twice as often as non-smokers.
• Bladder cancer symptoms may be identical to those of a bladder infection and the two problems may occur together. If symptoms do not disappear after treatment with antibiotics, insist upon further evaluation to determine whether bladder cancer is present.
• Bladder cancer has the highest recurrence rate of any form of cancer—between 50-80 percent.
What can you do?
The most important thing for you is to know the signs and symptoms of bladder cancer and report them to your physician immediately. The most common sign—blood in the urine—can be visible (though it may sometimes appear dark brown or orange) but could also only be detected under a microscopic examination. It is important to visit your doctor for routine examinations. Most bleeding associated with bladder cancer is painless, however, about 30 percent of bladder cancer patients experience burning, frequent urination or a sensation of incomplete emptying when they urinate.
If you experience any of these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.
BCAN was invited to share the experiences of women diagnosed with bladder cancer at the “Bladder Cancer in Women: Identifying Research Needs to Improve Diagnosis and Treatment” program sponsored by Johns Hopkins Greenberg Bladder Cancer Institute and the American Urological Association Translational Research Collaboration. Each of these women’s stories are memorable and unique. However their stories are repeated often around the country because women are not the “typical bladder cancer patient.” Read the the transcript of their presentation here.
Advice from women survivors
The good news is that in most cases, if caught early, bladder cancer is a manageable disease. There are tens of thousands of women bladder cancer survivors living today. Read their stories