Understanding Bladder Cancer: What Is Bladder Cancer?

To understand bladder cancer, it’s first important to understand what cancer is: basically, the production of abnormal cells.

The body is programmed to routinely replenish cells in different organs. As normal cells age or get damaged, they die off. New cells take their place. This is what’s supposed to happen. Abnormal cell growth refers to a buildup of extra cells. This happens when:

  • New cells form even though the body doesn’t need them or
  • Old, damaged cells don’t die off.

These extra cells slowly accumulate to form a tissue mass, lump, or growth called a tumor. These abnormal cells can destroy normal body tissue and spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system.

The walls of your bladder made up of layers. The cells that line your bladder lining are called urothelial cells. These also line parts of your kidneys, ureters and urethra.

Cancer begins in the inner lining layer and grows into your bladder wall. As it grows through the layers, the cancer becomes harder to treat. If bladder cancer is found, your doctor will need to check your whole urinary tract. This is because often similar tumors grow in the lining of another part.

Bladder tumors are grouped by the way the cells look under a microscope. There are several types of bladder cancer that are very rare:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Small cell carcinoma
  • Transitional cell carcinoma

In this website we will focus on transitional cell carcinoma. It is the most common kind of bladder cancer. It starts in the cells lining the inside of your bladder. These cells are called urothelial cells. The cancer that begins here is also called urothelial carcinoma.

There are 2 kinds of transitional cell carcinomas:

  • Papillary cancers grow like fingers from the inner bladder lining toward the center.
  • Flat cancers do not grow toward the center.

Your doctor will first conduct a physical exam. He or she may check your rectum and vagina (if you’re a woman) to feel for a tumor. You may be referred to a urologist for more tests. The doctor will also look for symptoms like:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Change in bladder habits

Having blood in your urine is often the first sign of bladder cancer. Keep in mind that a change in bladder habits is usually caused by a benign condition.

Benign vs. Malignant: What’s the Difference?

Benign means not cancerous. A benign tumor can get larger but does not spread to other tissues or organs.

Malignant means cancerous. A malignant tumor’s cells can invade nearby tissue and lymph nodes and then spread to other organs. These cells are destructive.

Benign tumors:

  • Can be removed
  • Usually don’t grow back
  • Are rarely fatal
  • Don’t spread to other tissues or body parts

Malignant tumors:

  • Can often be removed
  • Sometimes grow back
  • Can invade other tissues and organs and cause damage
  • Can spread to other body parts
  • Can be fatal

Next: How is bladder cancer diagnosed?

Back to “Understanding Bladder Cancer: An Introduction”