Can bladder cancer be found early?
Bladder cancer can sometimes be found early. Finding it early improves your chances that it can be treated successfully.
Screening tests or exams are used to look for a disease in people who have no symptoms (and who have not had that disease before). Routine screening of the general public for bladder cancer is not recommended by any major professional organization at this time. This is because no screening test has been shown to lower the risk of dying from bladder cancer in people who are at average risk.
Some doctors may recommend bladder cancer screening for people at very high risk. This includes people with a previous diagnosis of bladder cancer or certain birth defects of the bladder. People with a lot of work-related exposure to certain chemicals might also be screened.
Tests that might be used to screen for bladder cancer
Screening tests for bladder cancer look for different substances or cancer cells in the urine.
Urinalysis: One way to test for bladder cancer is to check for blood in the urine (called hematuria). This can be done during a urinalysis, which is a simple test to check urine for blood and other substances. This test is sometimes done as a routine part of a general health checkup.
Blood in the urine is usually caused by benign (non-cancerous) conditions such as infections, but it also can be the first sign of bladder cancer. Large amounts of blood in the urine can easily be seen, but a urinalysis is needed to find small amounts.
Most studies of routine urinalysis as a screening test to look for blood haven’t found more bladder cancers, but one study found that screening might detect the cancer at an earlier stage.
Urine cytology: In this test, the doctor looks for bladder cancer by examining urine under a microscope for cancer cells. Urine cytology does find some cancers, but it is not reliable enough to make a good screening test.
Urine tests for tumor markers: Several newer tests look for substances in the urine that might indicate bladder cancer:
- UroVysion™: This test looks for chromosome changes that are often seen in bladder cancer cells.
- BTA tests: These tests look for a substance called bladder tumor-associated antigen (BTA) in the urine.
- Immunocyt™: This test looks at cells in the urine for the presence of substances such as mucin and carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), which are often found on cancer cells.
- NMP22 BladderChek®: This test looks for a protein called NMP22 in the urine, which is often found at higher levels in people who have bladder cancer.
These tests might find some bladder cancers early, but they can miss some cancers as well. In other cases, the test result may be abnormal even in some people who do not have cancer. At this time the tests are used mainly to look for bladder cancer in people who already have signs or symptoms of cancer, or in patients who have had a bladder cancer removed to check for cancer recurrence. Further research is needed before they are proven useful as screening tests.
Watching for possible symptoms of bladder cancer
No screening tests are recommended for people at average risk, but bladder cancer can often be found early because it causes blood in the urine or other urinary symptoms (see “How is bladder cancer diagnosed?”). Many of these symptoms often have less serious causes, but it’s important to have them checked by a doctor right away so the cause can be found and treated, if needed. If the symptoms are due to bladder cancer, finding it early offers the best chance for successful treatment.
Last Medical Review: 11/15/2012
Last Revised: 01/17/2013