Am I at risk of bladder cancer? Symptoms of a 'forgotten' disease that impacts 1,000s of Canadians every year

May is Bladder Cancer Awareness Month. Did you know 9 in 10 bladder cancer cases in Canada are diagnosed in populations ages 50 and older?

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Woman holding a bladder cut out around her abdomen for Bladder Cancer Awareness Month. (Photo via Getty Images)
May 1 is the beginning of Bladder Cancer Awareness Month. (Photo via Getty Images)

Bladder Cancer Awareness Month officially starts on May 1 — and it's a disease worth taking seriously. In Canada, it's the fifth most common cancer, with more than 80,000 people in the country living with the condition. Moreover, bladder cancer ranks ninth of all cancers worldwide.

This year, the World Bladder Cancer Patient Coalition aims to challenge the uncertainty around the disease's symptoms, the most prominent of which is blood in the urine. The organization notes that if a bladder cancer case is caught early, the person's survival rate can be as high as 90 per cent.

"Our ambition is to spark conversations that raise awareness about bladder cancer by highlighting the symptoms of bladder cancer and overcoming any barriers to seeking medical advice," the organization states on its website.

For its 2024 campaign, the organization created an online game called "Spot The Drop," which challenges the player's reaction time to seeing red, emphasizing the importance of detecting symptoms early.

While oftentimes referred to as the "forgotten cancer," Bladder Cancer Canada urges people that it's a disease that should be "impossible to ignore." In fact, around 13,400 Canadians were diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2023 and it was estimated around 2,600 would die from the disease, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

But since bladder cancer warning signs are often mistaken for other health conditions like urinary tract and kidney infections, early detection may not be as clear-cut as other diseases. So, what are the signs and symptoms of bladder cancer, and what are the risk factors? Read on to learn more.

Bladder cancer begins when formerly healthy cells in the bladder start to grow abnormally and multiply. The vast majority (90 per cent) of bladder cancer cases occur in the organ's inner lining and are known as urothelial carcinoma or transitional cell carcinoma.

When the disease develops in the bladder lining, it's referred to as superficial bladder cancer. Alternatively, when the cancer has spread through the lining and invades the muscle wall or spreads to nearby organs and lymph nodes, it's called invasive bladder cancer.

Nine in 10 bladder cancer cases in Canada are diagnosed in populations ages 50 and older. Bladder cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and the 10th most commonly diagnosed among women.

While it's a lesser-known cancer, you may remember several celebrities who have been impacted by the disease. Frank Sinatra was diagnosed with bladder cancer in his final years (he ultimately passed away from a heart attack), NBA star Maurice Lucas underwent surgery for bladder cancer and later died from the disease at age 58 and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh underwent treatment for his diagnosis in 2015.

Frank Sinatra in black tux at microphone, NBA star Maurice Lucas blazing basket ball, and
Frank Sinatra, NBA star Maurice Lucas, and Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh have all been impacted by bladder cancer. (Photos via Getty Images)

In Canada, if you're of a certain age or population group, screening tests are available for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer. However, bladder cancer is a different story.

As of today, there are no early screening tests available for bladder cancer. Therefore, most people are diagnosed after reporting symptoms, most commonly, blood in the urine.

According to Dr. Girish Kulkarni, a urologic surgeon in the department of surgical oncology at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, blood in the urine should never be ignored, even if it's a one-time occurrence.

"If someone visibly sees blood, even one time, they should have a thorough assessment," Kulkarni tells Yahoo Canada in a recent interview.

In addition to blood in the urine, signs or symptoms of bladder cancer may include:

  • Pain or burning during urination

  • Frequent and urgent urination

  • Feeling the need to urinate but not being able to

  • Experiencing symptoms despite no signs of infections

Kulkarni says that in addition to blood, pain should never be ignored, as it may indicate a more advanced stage of bladder cancer.

Bladder cancer can affect anyone. However, certain populations are considerably more at-risk than others. Unlike cancers linked to the so-called "cancer gene" (inherited gene mutations), the risk of developing bladder cancer is almost entirely lifestyle-related.

According to Kulkarni, smoking is the "number one risk factor associated with bladder cancer." Additionally, occupational exposures to specific chemicals are often tied to diagnoses, including those found in hair dyes, paints, fungicides, cigarette smoke, plastics, metals and motor vehicle exhaust.

man holding cigarette in hand, smoke coming from cigarette
Smoking cigarettes is the top risk factor associated with bladder cancer. (Photo via Getty Images)

Because of its risk factors, bladder cancer tends to disproportionately affect populations of "lower socioeconomic status," says Kulkarni. "Think of the people working with chemicals: Painters, factory workers, hairdressers, [etc.]," those are the groups who are most at-risk.

One of the theories that explains why men are diagnosed at higher rates than women are the lifestyle factors mentioned: "Historically, men were the smokers, and men were the ones working with chemicals," Kulkarni says.

Despite being the fifth-most prevalent cancer in Canada, Kulkarni says bladder cancer is one of the least funded. Bladder cancer is "often beyond the 20th-rank in terms of funding," he says, adding "there's a lot of disparity in the research into bladder cancer."

He adds while "most people think of breast, prostate, colon and lung cancers, bladder [cancer] is right there next to them." However, "it doesn't get the fifth or sixth-most amount of funding."

It's a "very prevalent" and "very recurrent disease," he says. "It can come back over and over [again]." The lack of funding "really [highlights] the disparities in cancer care" in Canada.

To learn more about bladder cancer, see the resources below.

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