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Guarding against bladder cancer

Bladder cancer rates have steadily risen in recent decades, making bladder cancer the sixth most common cancer in the United States. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates 68,810 new cases will be diagnosed this year and more than 14,000 people will die from bladder cancer. You can help change these stats by learning about bladder cancer, reducing your risks and asking your healthcare provider whether you should be screened.

What causes bladder cancer?

The bladder is a hollow balloon-shaped organ that stores urine collected from the kidneys until it’s ready for release. It’s mostly muscle but has a thin inner lining surrounded by a layer of loose connective tissue. Most bladder cancers—about 90 percent—begin in this inner-lining layer.

Chronic inflammation and long-term irritation of the inner lining is the likely cause of most bladder cancers. In fact, most diagnosed bladder cancers are confined to the two innermost layers and don’t usually invade the bladder’s muscle layer.

Who’s at risk?

Although experts still can’t explain why some people develop bladder cancer and others don’t, studies show the following factors may increase your risk:

Age. Your chances for getting bladder cancer increase as you get older. Bladder cancer among people younger than 40 is rare.

Tobacco. The cancer-causing agents in tobacco are a major cause of bladder cancer. Smokers are two to three times more likely than nonsmokers to develop bladder cancer.

Occupation. People who work in rubber, chemical, textile and leather industries face greater risk from exposure to carcinogens at work. Other workers, such as hairdressers, machinists, metal workers, printers, painters and truck drivers, also have an increased risk for bladder cancer. Long-term exposure to compounds such as paints and solvents is estimated to cause 20 percent to 25 percent of cases.

Infections. Chronic bladder infections, as well as infections with certain parasites, can increase your bladder cancer risk. While these parasites are found in tropical locales and aren’t common in the United States, you can get them if you travel.

Drug treatment. Some drug therapies, such as cyclophosphamide, which is used to treat other cancers and conditions, raise bladder cancer risk. If you have undergone such treatments, talk with your healthcare provider about your need for bladder cancer screening.

Race. Caucasians get bladder cancer at twice the rate of African-Americans and Hispanics. Asians have the lowest incidence.

Gender. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop this cancer.

Family history. People who have a family member who had bladder cancer are at increased risk.

Personal history. People who’ve had bladder cancer are at greater risk for developing the cancer again.

What are the early warning signs?

Common early symptoms of bladder cancer include:

  • blood in the urine (may appear slightly rusty to deep red)
  • pain during urination
  • frequent urination or feeling the urge to urinate but without results

Having these symptoms doesn’t mean you have cancer. Many conditions, such as a bladder infection, kidney stones, benign tumors or other problems can cause these symptoms, too. So let your healthcare provider determine the cause.

How can you protect yourself?

While no surefire way exists to prevent bladder cancer, talk with your healthcare provider about which of the following steps will help reduce your risk:

  • Don’t smoke. Cancer-causing chemicals in smoke collect in the bladders of those who smoke. If you smoke, talk with your healthcare provider about a plan to help you quit.
  • Follow all safety instructions and use protective equipment like a mask or a face shield to limit or avoid exposure when working with household or work-related chemicals.
  • Have your water tested for arsenic, particularly if you have well water.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Fluids can dilute toxic substances that may be concentrating in and irritating your bladder and help flush them out in your urine more quickly.
  • Eat your fruits and vegetables. Choose a diet rich in a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may help reduce your cancer risk.