When bladder cancer is classified as NMIBC, surgery to remove the tumor is often the first step. A transurethral resection of the bladder tumor uses a special instrument inserted through the urethra to remove the tumor. If the tumor is low risk/grade and has not invaded the muscle wall of the bladder, it may not require more treatment. Unfortunately, bladder cancer has a high rate of recurrence so most of those who receive diagnoses must return to their urologist at regular intervals for surveillance using cystoscopy to see if the tumors return.

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If the tumor cells appear aggressive under the microscope and the pathologist determines that the cancer is high risk/grade, it is more likely to return or worsen. In these cases, further treatment to keep the cancer from returning or worsening is required. Most often, patients with high-grade NMIBC receive intravesical (inside the bladder) treatments. Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) is an early form of immunotherapy that uses a weakened form of bacteria. When these bacteria are put into the bladder, the immune system goes on alert. It responds by killing cancer cells on the bladder lining. Though BCG is very effective, it doesn’t work for all tumors. If BCG doesn’t work, there are other options such as mitomycin C, an antibiotic that helps fight tumors.

When bladder cancer grows into the deeper layers of the bladder (MIBC), it is more difficult to treat. In many cases, a urologist may suggest radial cystectomy, which is surgery to remove your bladder. Removing the bladder also involves removing lymph nodes around the organ. As part of the surgery, it will be necessary to create a urinary diversion, a new way for urine to leave your body.

Systemic chemotherapy is medicine that treats cancer throughout the whole body. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy is chemotherapy patients get before bladder removal surgery. Clinical trials have shown that cisplatin chemotherapy before bladder removal improves survival for patients with MIBC because it helps kill bladder cancer cells that may be outside the bladder. Adjuvant chemotherapy is the chemotherapy patients get after surgery.

Recently approved targeted therapies can block the growth and spread of cancer. They focus on stopping the cancer-driving activity caused by specific genetic mutations that are found in some bladder cancers.

Some patients may benefit from combined modality therapy, which uses surgery to remove the tumor, plus chemotherapy and radiation to help kill the cancer while keeping the bladder intact. This option can be used for some patients who are ineligible for bladder removal surgery. Those with advanced or metastatic disease may benefit from chemotherapy and a variety of immunotherapies that can help the body fight off the cancer.

There are many talented researchers and clinicians working to improve the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Clinical trials are an essential part of bladder cancer research. They may provide treatment alternatives to patients who have not had success with standard and approved therapies.