Intravesical Therapy for Bladder Cancer

With intravesical therapy, the doctor puts a liquid drug directly into the bladder (through a catheter) rather than giving it by mouth or injecting it into a vein. The drug can affect the cells lining the bladder without having major effects in other parts of the body

When might intravesical therapy be used?

Intravesical therapy is used after transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT) for non-invasive (stage 0) or minimally invasive (stage I) bladder cancers to help keep the cancer from coming back.

It is used only for these early-stage cancers because medicines given this way mainly affect the cells lining the inside of the bladder, with little to no effect on cells elsewhere. This means that any cancer cells outside of the bladder lining, including those that have grown deeply into the bladder wall, are not treated. Drugs put into the bladder also can’t reach cancer cells in the kidneys, ureters, and urethra, or those that have spread to other organs.

Types of intravesical therapy

There are two types of intravesical therapy:

  • Immunotherapy
  • Chemotherapy

Intravesical immunotherapy

Immunotherapy causes the body’s own immune system to attack the cancer cells.

Bacillus Calmette-Guerin therapy: Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) is the main intravesical immunotherapy for treating early-stage bladder cancer. BCG is a germ that is related to the one that causes tuberculosis (TB), but it doesn’t usually cause serious disease. BCG is put directly into the bladder through a catheter. The body’s immune system cells are attracted to the bladder and activated by BCG, which in turn affects the bladder cancer cells. Treatment is usually started a few weeks after a TURBT and is given once a week for 6 weeks. Sometimes long-term maintenance BCG therapy is given.

Treatment with BCG can cause symptoms that feel like having the flu, such as fever, chills, and fatigue. It can also cause a burning feeling in the bladder. Rarely, BCG can spread through the body, leading to a serious infection. One sign of this can be a high fever that isn’t helped by aspirin or similar medicines. If this happens, call your doctor right away. You might want to ask about other serious side effects that would warrant a call to your doctor.  

Intravesical chemotherapy

For this treatment, chemotherapy (chemo) drugs are put directly into the bladder through a catheter. These drugs kill actively growing cancer cells. Many of these same drugs can also be given systemically (usually into a vein) to treat more advanced stages of bladder cancer.

Mitomycin is the drug used most often for intravesical chemotherapy. Other drugs that can be used include valrubicin, docetaxel, thiotepa, and gemcitabine. Delivery of mitomycin into the bladder along with heating the inside of the bladder, a treatment called electromotive mitomycin therapy, may work even better than giving intravesical mitomycin the usual way.

A major advantage of giving chemo directly into the bladder instead of injecting it into the bloodstream is that the drugs usually do not reach other parts of the body. This helps people avoid many of the side effects that can occur with chemo..

The main side effects of intravesical chemo are irritation and a burning feeling in the bladder.

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: January 26, 2016 Last Revised: May 23, 2016

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