Some types and grades of bladder cancer spread quickly. Doctors can treat this disease in several ways. However, treatments are most effective before bladder cancer spreads.

The bladder is a hollow organ in the lower part of the abdomen. It collects and stores urine from the kidneys before releasing it.

In this article, we discuss what bladder cancer is, which types of the disease can spread quickly, and where it spreads. We also explore bladder cancer symptoms and treatments for the disease when it has spread.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Bladder cancer develops when cells in a person’s bladder start growing uncontrollably. The cells then develop into a tumor and may then spread to other parts of the body.

There are several types and grades of bladder cancer, and some spread more quickly than others. These types may be harder to treat.

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 82,290 people will receive a diagnosis of bladder cancer in the United States in 2023. However, it also states that rates of new cases have been dropping in recent years.

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Doctors classify a person’s bladder cancer in several different ways.

Grade

The grade of bladder cancer describes how atypical the cancer cells are and how quickly they grow and spread. The disease’s cells can be high or low grade.

Low grade bladder cancer cells do not look very atypical. They tend to grow and spread at a slower pace than high grade forms of the disease.

In contrast, high grade bladder cancer cells look atypical when doctors examine them under a microscope. They usually grow and spread faster than low grade cells. High grade bladder cancers may need urgent or powerful treatment.

Invasiveness

A cancer’s invasiveness describes how far or where it has spread from the bladder.

For example, non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer describes cancer that is still inside the bladder lining. In contrast, muscle-invasive bladder cancer is when the disease spreads past the bladder lining and into or beyond the bladder muscle wall.

The most common type is non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer, or early bladder cancer. Doctors also call this stage 1 bladder cancer.

While muscle-invasive bladder cancer is less common, it has a higher chance of spreading to other parts of the body. Doctors may also call this stage 2 bladder cancer.

Bladder cancer that spreads to another part of the body is called metastatic bladder cancer, or advanced bladder cancer. At stage 3, the disease has often spread to parts of the body near the bladder. At stage 4, it often spreads to other body parts.

Type

Doctors classify cancers depending on the type of cells they formed inside first. Some types of the disease spread fast, and fast-spreading types of bladder cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinomas: These cancers are very rare, invasive, and start in gland-forming cells. About 1% of bladder cancers are adenocarcinomas.
  • Small cell carcinomas: Less than 1% of bladder cancers are small cell carcinomas. They start in a person’s neuroendocrine cells and typically grow fast.
  • Squamous cell carcinomas: Around 1–2% of bladder cancers in the United States are squamous cell carcinomas. They spread quickly in many cases.

Not all bladder cancers spread. However, it is more likely to first spread to areas close to a person’s bladder, including their:

  • prostate, which is a small gland in the male body that helps make semen
  • vagina
  • pelvis
  • ureters, which are tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder
  • urethra, which is a tube that enables urine to leave the body

If a person’s bladder cancer spreads further, it is likely to spread to their:

Bladder cancer symptoms can vary. The most common symptom is blood in the urine, which may appear bright red to slightly rusty in color.

People may have very small amounts of blood in their urine that come and go. In some cases, it may only be detectable with a test. Other common symptoms of bladder cancer include:

  • urinating frequently
  • a feeling a need to urinate even if a person’s bladder is not full
  • pain or a burning feeling when urinating
  • often urinating at night

If a person’s bladder cancer is large or has spread to other body parts, their symptoms may include:

Healthcare professionals may treat someone with bladder cancer using:

If bladder cancer has spread, doctors usually recommend treatment with chemotherapy, which involves medications. They may also use radiation therapy, which uses high energy radiation to destroy cancer cells. Doctors will use this technique alone or in combination with chemotherapy.

Doctors may also suggest people take part in clinical trials that explore new drugs, procedures, and treatments for bladder cancer.

Some types of high grade and invasive bladder cancers may spread quickly. However, not all bladder cancers spread to other areas of the body.

If a person experiences any symptoms of this disease, they need to seek professional medical attention. A doctor can find out if bladder cancer is causing their symptoms and recommend appropriate treatment.