Bladder Cancer Stages

After someone is diagnosed with bladder cancer, doctors will try to figure out if it has spread, and if so, how far. This process is called staging. The stage of a cancer describes the extent of the cancer in the body. It helps determine how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it. The stage is one of the most important factors in deciding how to treat the cancer and determining how successful treatment might be.

To determine the cancer’s stage after a bladder cancer diagnosis, doctors try to answer these questions:

  • How far has the cancer grown into the wall of the bladder?
  • Has the cancer reached nearby structures?
  • Has the cancer spread to the nearby lymph nodes or to distant organs?

The stage of bladder cancer is based on the results of physical exams, biopsies, and imaging tests (CT or MRI scan, x-rays, PET scan, etc.), which are described in Tests for Bladder Cancer, as well as the results of surgery

Understanding your bladder cancer stage

A staging system is a standard way for the cancer care team to describe how far a cancer has spread. The staging system most often used for bladder cancer is the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) TNM system, which is based on 3 key pieces of information:

  • T describes how far the main (primary) tumor has grown through the bladder wall and whether it has grown into nearby tissues.
  • N indicates any cancer spread to lymph nodes near the bladder. Lymph nodes are bean-sized collections of immune system cells, to which cancers often spread first.
  • M indicates if the cancer has spread (metastasized) to distant sites, such as other organs or lymph nodes that are not near the bladder.

Numbers or letters after T, N, and M provide more details about each of these factors. Higher numbers mean the cancer is more advanced. Once a person’s T, N, and M categories have been determined, usually after surgery, this information is combined in a process called stage grouping to assign an overall stage.

The earliest stage cancers are called stage 0 (carcinoma in situ), and then range from stages I (1) through IV (4).

As a rule, the lower the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, such as stage IV, means a more advanced cancer. And within a stage, an earlier letter means a lower stage. Cancers with similar stages tend to have a similar outlook and are often treated in much the same way.

The staging system in the table below uses the pathologic stage. It is based on the results of physical exam, biopsy, imaging tests, and the results of surgery. This is likely to be more accurate than clinical staging, which only takes into account the tests done before surgery.

Bladder cancer staging can be complex. If you have any questions about your stage, please ask your doctor to explain it to you in a way you understand. (An explanation of the TNM system also follows the stage table below.)  

Stage

Stage grouping

Stage description

0a

Ta

N0

M0

The cancer is a non-invasive papillary carcinoma (Ta). It has grown toward the hollow center of the bladder but has not grown into the connective tissue or muscle of the bladder wall.

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or distant sites (M0).

0is

Tis

N0

M0

The cancer is a flat, non-invasive carcinoma (Tis), also known as flat carcinoma in situ (CIS). The cancer is growing in the inner lining layer of the bladder only. It has not grown inward toward the hollow part of the bladder, nor has it invaded the connective tissue or muscle of the bladder wall.

It has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or distant sites (M0).

I

T1

N0

M0

The cancer has grown into the layer of connective tissue under the lining layer of the bladder but has not reached the layer of muscle in the bladder wall (T1).

The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

II

T2a or T2b N0

M0

The cancer has grown into the inner (T2a) or outer (T2b) muscle layer of the bladder wall, but it has not passed completely through the muscle to reach the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder.

The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

IIIA

T3a, T3b or T4a

N0

M0

The cancer has grown through the muscle layer of the bladder and into the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder (T3a or T3b).

It might have spread into the prostate, uterus, or vagina, but it is not growing into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4a).

The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

OR

T1-4a

N1

M0

The cancer has:

  • grown into the layer of connective tissue under the lining of the bladder wall (T1), OR
  • into the muscle layer of the bladder wall (T2), OR
  • into the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder, (T3a or T3b) OR
  • it might have spread into the prostate, uterus, or vagina, but it is not growing into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4a).

AND the cancer has spread to a nearby lymph node in the true pelvis (N1).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

IIIB

 

T1-T4a

N2 or N3 M0

The cancer has:

  • grown into the layer of connective tissue under the lining of the bladder wall (T1), OR
  • into the muscle layer of the bladder wall (T2), OR
  • into the layer of fatty tissue that surrounds the bladder (T3a or T3b), OR
  • it might have spread into the prostate, uterus, or vagina, but it is not growing into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4a).

AND the cancer has spread to 2 or more lymph nodes in the true pelvis (N2) or to lymph nodes along the common iliac arteries (N3).

It has not spread to distant sites (M0).

IVA

T4b

N0

M0

 

The cancer has grown through the bladder wall into the pelvic or abdominal wall (T4b).

The cancer has not spread to nearby lymph nodes (N0) or to distant sites (M0).

OR

Any T

Any N

M1a

The cancer might or might not have grown through the wall of the bladder into nearby organs (Any T).

It might or might not have spread to nearby lymph nodes (Any N).

It has spread to a distant set of lymph nodes (M1a).

IVB

Any T

Any N

 M1b

The cancer might or might not have grown through the wall of the bladder into nearby organs (Any T).

It might or might not have spread to nearby lymph nodes (Any N).

It has spread to 1 or more distant organs (such as the bones, liver or lungs) (M1b).

T categories for bladder cancer

The T category describes how far the main tumor has grown into the wall of the bladder (or beyond).

Illustration showing the location of the bladder in relation to the kidneys, uterus (in women), prostate (in men), ureter and urethra. There is also a close up showing the layers of the bladder wall with papillary and flat tumors.

The wall of the bladder has 4 main layers.

  • The innermost lining is called the urothelium or transitional epithelium.
  • Beneath the urothelium is a thin layer of connective tissue, blood vessels, and nerves.
  • Next is a thick layer of muscle.
  • Outside of this muscle, a layer of fatty connective tissue separates the bladder from other nearby organs.

Nearly all bladder cancers start in the urothelium. As the cancer grows into or through the other layers in the bladder, it becomes more advanced.

The T categories are described in the table above, except for:

TX: Main tumor cannot be assessed due to lack of information

T0: No evidence of a primary tumor

N categories for bladder cancer

The N category describes spread only to the lymph nodes near the bladder (in the true pelvis) and those along the blood vessel called the common iliac artery. These lymph nodes are called regional lymph nodes. Any other lymph nodes are considered distant lymph nodes. Spread to distant nodes is considered metastasis (described in the M category). Surgery is usually needed to find cancer spread to lymph nodes, since it is not often seen on imaging tests.

The N categories are described in the table above, except for:

NX: Regional lymph nodes cannot be assessed due to lack of information.

N0: There is no regional lymph node spread.

M categories for bladder cancer

The M categories are described in the table above. 

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: December 8, 2017 Last Revised: December 8, 2017

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