Bladder cancer surgery
Surgery is part of the treatment for most bladder cancers. The type of surgery used depends on the stage (extent) of the cancer.
Transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT)
A transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT), also known as just a transurethral resection (TUR), is often used to determine if someone has bladder cancer and, if so, whether the cancer has invaded the muscle layer of the bladder wall.
This is also the most common treatment for early-stage or superficial (non-muscle invasive) bladder cancers. Most patients have superficial cancer when they are first diagnosed, so this is usually their first treatment. Some people might also get a second, more extensive TURBT as part of their treatment.
How TURBT is done
This surgery is done using an instrument put up the urethra, so it doesn’t require cutting into the abdomen. You will get either general anesthesia (where you are asleep) or regional anesthesia (where the lower part of your body is numbed).
For this operation, a type of rigid cystoscope called a resectoscope is placed into the bladder through the urethra. The resectoscope has a wire loop at its end to remove any abnormal tissues or tumors. The removed tissue is sent to a lab to be looked at by a pathologist.
After the tumor is removed, more steps may be taken to try to ensure that it has been destroyed completely. Any remaining cancer may be treated by fulguration (burning the base of the tumor) while looking at it with the cystoscope. Cancer can also be destroyed using a high-energy laser through the cystoscope.
Possible side effects
The side effects of TURBT are generally mild and do not usually last long. You might have some bleeding and pain when you urinate after surgery. You can usually return home the same day or the next day and can resume your usual activities within a week or two.
Even if the TURBT removes the tumor completely, bladder cancer often comes back (recurs) in other parts of the bladder. This might be treated with another TURBT. But if TURBT needs to be repeated many times, the bladder can become scarred and lose its capacity to hold much urine. Some people may have side effects such as frequent urination, or even incontinence (loss of control of urination).
In patients with a long history of recurrent, non-invasive low-grade tumors, the surgeon may sometimes just use fulguration to burn small tumors that are seen during cystoscopy (rather than removing them). This can often be done using local anesthesia (numbing medicine) in the doctor’s office. It is safe but can be mildly uncomfortable.
When bladder cancer is invasive, all or part of the bladder may need to be removed. This operation is called a cystectomy.
Partial cystectomy: If the cancer has invaded the muscle layer of the bladder wall but is not very large and only in one place, it can sometimes be removed along with part of the bladder wall without taking out the whole bladder. The hole in the bladder wall is then closed. Nearby lymph nodes are also removed and examined for cancer spread. Only a small portion of people with cancer that has invaded the muscle can have this surgery.
The main advantage of this surgery is that the person keeps their bladder and doesn’t need reconstructive surgery (see below). But the remaining bladder may not hold as much urine, which means they will have to urinate more often. The main concern with this type of surgery is that bladder cancer can still recur in another part of the bladder wall.
Radical cystectomy: If the cancer is larger or is in more than one part of the bladder, a radical cystectomy will be needed. This operation removes the entire bladder and nearby lymph nodes. In men, the prostate and seminal vesicles are also removed. In women, the ovaries, fallopian tubes (tubes that connect the ovaries and uterus), the uterus (womb), cervix, and a small portion of the vagina are often removed along with the bladder.
General anesthesia (where you are in a deep sleep) is used for either type of cystectomy.
Typically, these procedures are done through a cut (incision) in the abdomen. You will need to stay in the hospital for about a week after the surgery. You can usually go back to your normal activities after several weeks.
In some cases, the surgeon may operate through several smaller incisions using special long, thin instruments, one of which has a tiny video camera on the end to see inside the pelvis. This is known as laparoscopic, or “keyhole” surgery. The surgeon may either hold the instruments directly or may sit at a control panel in the operating room and maneuver robotic arms to do the surgery (sometimes known as a robotic cystectomy). This type of surgery may result in less pain and quicker recovery because of the smaller incisions. But it hasn’t been around as long as the standard type of surgery, so it’s not yet clear if it is equally as effective.
It is important that any type of cystectomy be done by a surgeon with experience in treating bladder cancer. If the surgery is not done well, the cancer is more likely to come back.
Reconstructive surgery after radical cystectomy
If your whole bladder is removed, you will need another way to store and remove urine. Several types of reconstructive surgery can be done depending on your medical situation and personal preferences.
Incontinent diversion: One option may be to remove a short piece of your intestine and connect it to the ureters. This creates a passageway, known as an ileal conduit, for urine to pass from the kidneys to the outside of the body. Urine flows from the kidneys through the ureters into the ileal conduit. One end of the conduit is connected to the skin on the front of the abdomen by an opening called a stoma (also known as a urostomy).
After this procedure, a small bag is placed over the stoma to collect the urine, which comes out continuously in small amounts. The bag then needs to be emptied once it is full. This approach is sometimes called an incontinent diversion, because you no longer control the flow of urine out of the body.
Continent diversion: Another way for urine to drain is called a continent diversion. In this approach, a pouch is made from the piece of intestine that is attached to the ureters. One end of the pouch is connected to an opening (stoma) in the skin on the front of the abdomen. A valve is created in the pouch to allow urine to be stored there. You then empty the pouch several times a day by putting a drainage tube (catheter) into the stoma through the valve. Some people prefer this method because there is no bag on the outside.
Neobladder: A newer method routes the urine back into the urethra, restoring urination. To do this, the surgeon creates a neobladder – basically a new bladder made of a piece of intestine. As with the incontinent and continent diversions, the ureters are connected to the neobladder. The difference is that the neobladder is also sewn to the urethra. This lets the patient urinate normally. Over several months, most people regain the ability to urinate normally during the day, although many people might still have some incontinence at night.
If the cancer has spread or can’t be removed with surgery, a diversion may be made without removing the bladder. In this case, the purpose of the surgery is to prevent or relieve blockage of urine flow, rather than try to cure the cancer.
Risks and side effects of cystectomy
The risks with any type of cystectomy are much like those with any major surgery. Problems during or shortly after the operation can include:
- Reactions to anesthesia
- Bleeding from the surgery
- Blood clots in the legs or lungs
- Damage to nearby organs
- Infections at the surgery site
Most people will have at least some pain after the operation, which is usually helped with pain medicines, if needed.
Effects on urination: Bladder surgery can affect how you urinate. If you have had a partial cystectomy, this might be limited to having to go more often (because your bladder can’t hold as much urine).
If you have a radical cystectomy, you will need reconstructive surgery (described above) to create a new way for urine to leave your body. Depending on the type of reconstruction, you might need to learn how to empty your urostomy bag or to put a catheter into your stoma. Aside from these changes, urinary diversion and urostomy can also lead to:
- Urine leaks
- Pouch stones
- Blockage of urine flow
The physical changes that come from removing the bladder and having a urostomy can affect your quality of life as well. Discuss your feelings and concerns with your health care team.
For more about urostomies, see Urostomy: A Guide.
Sexual effects of radical cystectomy in men: Radical cystectomy removes the prostate gland and seminal vesicles. Since these glands make most of the seminal fluid, removing them means that a man will no longer make semen. He can still have an orgasm, but it will be “dry.”
After surgery, many men have nerve damage that affects their ability to have erections. In some men this may improve over time. Generally, the younger a man is, the more likely he is to regain the ability to have full erections. If this issue is important to you, discuss it with your doctor before surgery. Newer surgical techniques may lower the chance of erection problems.
For more on sexual issues and ways to cope with them, see Sexuality for the Man With Cancer.
Sexual effects of radical cystectomy in women: This surgery often removes the front part of the vagina. This can make sex less comfortable for some women, although most of the time intercourse is still possible. One option is to have the vagina rebuilt, which is known as vaginal reconstruction. There is more than one way to do this, so talk with your surgeon about the pros and cons of each. Whether or not you have reconstruction, there are many ways to make sex more comfortable.
Radical cystectomy can also affect a woman’s ability to have an orgasm if the nerve bundles that run along each side of the vagina are damaged. Talk with your doctor about whether these nerves can be left in place during surgery.
If the surgeon takes out the end of the urethra where it opens outside the body, the clitoris can lose some of its blood supply, which might affect sexual arousal. Talk with your surgeon about whether the end of the urethra can be spared.
For more on ways to cope with these and other sexual issues, see Sexuality for the Woman With Cancer.
Sexual effects of urostomy: It’s normal for both men and women to be concerned about having a sex life with a urostomy. Having your ostomy pouch fit correctly and emptying it before sex reduces the chances of a major leak. A pouch cover or small ostomy pouch can be worn with a sash to keep the pouch out of the way. Wearing a snug fitting shirt may be even more comfortable. Choose sexual positions that keep your partner’s weight from rubbing against the pouch. For more information, see Urostomy: A Guide.
See A Guide to Cancer Surgery for more about surgery as a treatment for cancer.
Last Medical Review: 02/26/2014
Last Revised: 02/08/2016