Bladder Cancer Overview

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Treating Bladder Cancer TOPICS

Chemotherapy for bladder cancer

Chemotherapy (chemo) is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs can be given in different ways. Often they are given into a vein or by mouth. Once the drugs enter the bloodstream, they spread throughout the body. Chemo is useful in treating cancer that has spread beyond the bladder to lymph nodes and other organs.

Chemo might be used to shrink a large tumor so it is easier to remove during surgery. When used this way it is called neoadjuvant therapy (giving the drugs before the local treatment). It can also be given after surgery or radiation to try to prevent the growth of stray cancer cells still in the body. This is called adjuvant therapy. It can lower the chance that the cancer will come back later.

Chemotherapy is often the main treatment for advanced cancers, such as those that have spread to distant parts of the body. Sometimes chemo is given along with radiation in order to help the radiation work better. This can increase the side effects of radiation.

Doctors give chemo in cycles, with each round of treatment followed by a rest period to allow the body time to recover. Each chemo cycle typically lasts for a few weeks.

While chemo for bladder cancer can be hard to endure, especially for older patients who have other medical problems, older age itself doesn’t mean that you can’t get chemo.

Side effects of chemo

While chemo drugs kill cancer cells, they also damage some normal cells and this can lead to side effects. These side effects depend on the type of drugs used, the amount taken, and the length of treatment. Short-term side effects might include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Diarrhea
  • Greater chance of infection (from a shortage of white blood cells)
  • Bleeding or bruising after minor cuts or injuries (from a shortage of blood platelets)
  • Tiredness (from low red blood cell counts, called anemia)

Some chemo drugs can cause other, less common side effects. For example, some drugs can damage nerves, which can lead to pain, numbness, or burning or tingling in the hands and feet.

Most of these side effects go away over time when treatment ends. If you have any problems with side effects, be sure to tell your doctor or nurse, as there are often ways to help. To find out more about chemotherapy, please see our document, Understanding Chemotherapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.


Last Medical Review: 12/03/2012
Last Revised: 04/17/2014