It’s estimated that more than 2 percent of all men and women (or about 1 in 50) will be diagnosed with bladder cancer at some point during their lifetime. (1) In the United States alone, as of 2014 there were more than 696,000 people living with bladder cancer and more than 68,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Bladder cancer affects more men than it does women, although women can be affected by the condition too.
What is one of the first signs of bladder cancer? Usually one of the earliest bladder cancer symptoms is blood in your urine (called hematuria). Depending on the stage or grade of bladder cancer that someone is diagnosed with, treatment options can include chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy and lifestyle changes to prevent the cancer from returning. Unfortunately, cancer treatments tend to cause many different side effects that may even be worse than the bladder cancer symptoms — but natural remedies like dietary changes, supplements and stress-relieving activities can help make bladder cancer treatments easier to handle.
What Is Bladder Cancer?
As the name implies, bladder cancer is cancer that affects the bladder, a hollow organ in the lower part of the abdomen that stores urine until it is passed out of the body. There are several different types of bladder cancer, which include: (2)
- Transitional cell carcinoma — According to the NIH National Cancer Institute, the most common type of bladder cancer is called transitional cell carcinoma (also called urothelial carcinoma). This develops first in urothelial cells that line the inside of the bladder and normally help the bladder to change shape and size based on how full it is. This same type of cancer can also affect other parts of the urinary tract, but the bladder is most likely to be affected.
- Squamous cell carcinoma — This type first affects the thin, flat cells lining the bladder. It is usually caused by bladder irritation or infections but is considered to be rare.
- Adenocarcinoma cancer — This type affects cells that make and release mucus and other fluids. This is a rare type of bladder cancer compared to transitional cell carcinoma.
How long will you live if you have bladder cancer? This depends on when the cancer was caught, or, more specifically, at what stage and grade it is diagnosed. When bladder cancer is diagnosed at an early stage (more on the stages below), there is a high probability that it can be overcome. Research suggests that as of the year 2013, more than 77 percent of people with bladder cancer will live at least five years past their diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms
- Blood in urine (hematuria). Urine can be pink, bright red or a darker maroon or brown color. Blood might come and go, sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time only to return again.
- Painful urination, which usually gets worse as the cancer progresses.
- Chronic symptoms tied to frequent urinary infections, kidney and bladder stones, or a bladder catheter left in place a long time that causes irritation.
Advanced bladder cancer symptoms can include those above, plus:
- Pelvic pain, and/or sometimes lower back and abdominal pain.
- Frequent urination due to an overactive bladder. You might feel like you need to urinate all of a sudden and urgently or have a hard time controlling your bladder or engaging the muscles in your pelvis.
- Being unable to urinate or control your “stream.”
- Nausea, loss of appetite and weight loss.
- Feeling tired or weak.
- Swelling in the feet.
- Aches and bone pain.
It’s possible for bladder cancer symptoms and signs in females to be somewhat different than in males. Bladder cancer symptoms in men can affect the prostate, a walnut-sized gland located between the bladder and penis in males that releases prostatic fluid and helps with the release of urine. Bladder cancer is the fourth most common malignancy diagnosed in American men and almost three times more common in men than in in women. (4) Men with bladder cancer usually experience some blood in their urine, urinary burning, increased urgency, and/or increased frequency. Women can have many of the same bladder cancer symptoms. In both sexes it’s common for these bladder cancer symptoms to be attributed to other conditions like urinary tract infections (UTIs), but if they keep returning it’s important to visit a doctor.
Causes and Risk Factors
What are the main causes of bladder cancer? Bladder cancer develops when cells in the bladder grow abnormally, develop mutations and form tumors. It’s not always known why this happens in some people, especially if they don’t have any obvious risk factors or a family history. There are many possible root causes of cancer, including various combinations of genetic and environmental factors.
People who have an increased risk of bladder cancer include those who:
- Are over the age of 40, since your risk increases as you get older. About 9 out of 10 people with bladder cancer are older than 55.
- Are males, who develop bladder cancer much more often than females do.
- Have had cancer in the past, especially cancer affecting the urinary tract.
- Smoke or use tobacco products. Cigarette smoking is considered one of the most important causes of bladder cancer since it causes toxins to travel to the kidneys and into the urine where they are exposed to the bladder lining.
- Are Caucasian/whites. People who are white have about twice the chance of developing bladder cancer as African Americans and Hispanics.
- Are exposed to certain chemicals and toxins that can damage your kidneys, such as due to exposure at work or through environmental pollution. Chemicals linked to bladder cancer include arsenic, benzidine and beta-naphthylamine and chemicals used in the manufacture of dyes, rubber, leather, textiles and paint products. According to the American Cancer Society, “workers with an increased risk of developing bladder cancer include painters, machinists, printers, hairdressers (probably because of heavy exposure to hair dyes), and truck drivers (likely because of exposure to diesel fumes).” (5) Arsenic can be found in some contaminated tap water, although this only happens rarely in industrialized nations.
- Have a history of chronic bladder infections or irritation of the lining of the bladder, such as from long-term use of a urinary catheter. The bladder can become irritated from urinary tract infections, kidney stones or prostate infection. (6)
- Have a family history of cancer, especially of hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, also called Lynch syndrome. People with a genetic mutation of the retinoblastoma (RB1) gene, or Cowden disease, are also at an increased risk.
- Have had radiation exposure or prior chemotherapy.
- Have had parasitic infections. For example, the parasitic infection called schistosomiasis (also known as bilharziasis), which mainly affects people living or visiting Africa and the Middle East, can increase bladder cancer risk.
- Have a rare birth defect that affects the urinary tract and bladder, including those called exstrophy or urachus.
- Have taken diabetes medication called pioglitazone (Actos) for more than one year.
Fortunately, bladder cancer is often diagnosed at an early stage, which means there is a higher likelihood of recovery. According to the Mayo Clinic, “About seven out of every 10 bladder cancers diagnosed start out at an early stage — when bladder cancer is highly treatable.” (7)
To make a bladder cancer diagnosis, your doctor will likely perform several tests, including a urine analysis and urine cytology. Blood in your urine might not be visible when you go to the bathroom, but can sometimes still be detected during a microscopic exam of the urine. Your doctor will also look for chromosome changes, antigens and proteins called NMP22 in your urine.
The stage or grade of cancer that someone has refers to how much their cancer has progressed and/or spread throughout their body. “Staging” describes where the cancer is located and whether or not it has spread to parts of the body such as the lymph nodes. The purpose of cancer staging is to help determine what kind of treatment should be most effective. Most doctors determine a patient’s cancer stage using the TNM system (which stands for tumor, node, metastasis), which describes the presence of primary tumors, their location, and if they have metastasized. There are four bladder cancer stages that someone can be diagnosed with:
- Stage 0a or 0b: This is an early stage when the cancer is on the inner lining of the bladder but has not invaded the muscle or connective tissue. (8)
- Stage I: The cancer has grown through the inner lining of the bladder into the lamina propria (a loose layer of connective tissue under the basement membrane lining of the epithelium).
- Stage II: The cancer has spread into the thick muscle wall of the bladder, but not the lymph nodes or other organs.
- Stage III: The cancer has spread throughout the muscle wall to the fatty layer of tissue surrounding the bladder.
- Stage IV: The tumor has spread to the pelvic wall or the abdominal wall, possibly to one or more regional lymph nodes, and potentially to other parts of the body.
Bladder cancer can also be described using grades:
- Papilloma — May recur but has a low risk of progressing.
- Low grade — More likely to recur and progress.
- High grade — Most likely to recur and progress.
Is bladder cancer curable? Usually, but it ultimately depends on the stage and grade of the cancer. Bladder cancer is usually treated by a multidisciplinary team led by a urologist (a doctor who specializes in the genitourinary tract, which includes the kidneys, bladder, genitals, prostate and testicles) and an oncologist (a doctor who specializes in treating cancers). (9)
Treatment options for bladder cancer can include:
- Surgery — Surgery is performed to remove the tumor and some surrounding tissue. For people with muscle-invasive bladder cancer, surgery might need to be done to remove the bladder (called a radical cystectomy). If lymph nodes are also removed, this is called a pelvic lymph node dissection. If a patient’s bladder is removed, a surgeon creates a new way to pass urine out of the body by creating an opening and having the patient wear a bag attached to collect and drain urine. (10)
- Chemotherapy — Helps stop cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. This can either be local chemotherapy or systemic (whole body) chemotherapy.
- Radiation — Uses high-energy X-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells. This is not typically a primary treatment for bladder cancer but is sometimes used in combination with chemotherapy.
- Immunotherapy — Stimulates the immune system so it can better fight off cancerous cells. This may involve using the bacterium called bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG).
- Lifestyle changes to help reduce the risk of the cancer returning.
Natural Ways to Help Ease Treatment and Symptoms
Bladder cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, usually cause side effects that can be very uncomfortable for a period of time. For example, side effects from radiation therapy, chemotherapy and surgery may include: fatigue, mild skin reactions, loose bowel movements, loss of appetite, nausea, depression, weight loss, pelvic or abdominal pain, bladder irritation, the need to pass urine frequently, and bleeding from the bladder or rectum. Below are some natural ways to help manage these symptoms and support your recovery:
1. Rest and Get Plenty of Sleep
While your body works hard to overcome cancer and adjust to treatments it’s common to feel fatigued, weak and sometimes even depressed. You likely won’t have energy to exercise while you recover, but if you feel up to it you can stay active in a gentle way by walking, stretching and possibly doing low-impact exercises like slow yoga or swimming. Get plenty of sleep to help provide your body with energy (seven to nine hours or more per night). Give yourself breaks throughout the day to rest, take naps if needed, and practice relaxation exercises.
2. Eat A Nutrient-Dense Diet
Studies have found evidence that eating a variety of fruits and vegetables that provide antioxidants is important for reducing cancer risk and helping with recovery. (11) Incorporate cancer-fighting foods into your diet such as:
- All types of leafy green veggies and other dark green vegetables. Greens and cruciferous vegetables are known to be powerful cancer killers and some of the best vitamin C foods.
- Berries (blueberries, raspberries, cherries, strawberries, goji berries, camu camu and blackberries), kiwi, citrus fruits, melon, mangoes and pineapple. Orange and yellow-colored plant foods (like sweet potatoes, berries, pumpkin, squashes and other plant foods) are especially good choices since they provide carotenoids, essential nutrients for immune functioning and detoxification.
- Organic meats, wild-caught fish, eggs and raw/fermented dairy products, which provide protein and nutrients like selenium, zinc and B vitamins.
- Healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, and avocados.
- Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, chia and flax seeds.
- Complex carbohydrates, including sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, other tubers and whole-grain foods. These can help give you energy and lift serotonin levels, which are helpful for sleep and relaxation.
- Fresh herbs and spices like ginger, turmeric, raw garlic, thyme, cayenne pepper, oregano, basil, rosemary, cinnamon and parsley.
- Bone broth, fresh vegetable juices, and herbal infusions which provide vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
3. Drink Enough Water to Stay Hydrated
Aside from quitting smoking and eating a healthy diet, studies suggest that enough fluid consumption seems to be important for protecting your bladder and urinary tract. Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, aim to drink one to two liters of water per day to help ease bladder cancer symptoms. Have a glass of water at least every two to three hours or whenever you feel thirsty. Limit alcohol and caffeine consumption, which have diuretic effects and can irritate the urinary tract.
Here’s more good news: studies have also found that fluid consumption has a favorable effect on colorectal cancer risk. According to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “Fluid intake may reduce colon cancer risk by decreasing bowel transit time and reducing mucosal contact with carcinogens. Low fluid intake may also compromise cellular concentration, affect enzyme activity in metabolic regulation, and inhibit carcinogen removal.” (12)
4. Reduce Nausea
If you’re dealing with bladder cancer symptoms (or medication side effects) like nausea, indigestion, loss of appetite, weakness or fatigue, try these remedies:
- Drink ginger tea or apply ginger essential oil over your chest or abdomen. To make your own ginger tea, cut ginger root into slices and place them into a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes.
- Take a supplement containing vitamin B6.
- Make a belly-calming beverage using chamomile tea and lemon juice.
- Inhale peppermint essential oil or rub it into your neck and chest.
- Get some fresh air, open a window and take a walk outside.
- Try alternative therapies like meditation and acupuncture.
- Eat smaller meals spread throughout the day. Sit up for about an hour after eating to relieve any pressure on the stomach. Try to eat at least three hours before bed to help you digest.
5. Practice Relaxation Techniques
It’s common to feel anxious, depressed, hopeless or angry when going through cancer treatment. Here are some stress-relieving techniques that may help you feel calmer when things get difficult.
- Practice yoga, meditation and breathing exercises.
- Spend time outside, and try to get some sunlight exposure to boost vitamin D levels.
- Take adaptogenic herbs to support your nervous system.
- Seek out emotional support from family, friends or a support group.
- Stay hopeful by praying or joining a faith-based community.
- Unwind by using essential oils like lavender, chamomile or holy basil.
- Take an Epsom salt bath before bed to relax muscular tension.
6. Frankincense Oil
I highly recommend using Frankincense (Boswellia serrata) oil internally or topically since research suggests it acts as a potential natural treatment for cancer. Frankincense oil is prepared from aromatic resins found naturally in Boswellia trees. The main cancer-fighting component of frankincense oil is boswellic acid, which is known to have anti-neoplastic properties.
One study published by the Department of Urology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center states that “Frankincense oil appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppress cancer cell viability … multiple pathways can be activated by frankincense oil to induce bladder cancer cell death. Frankincense oil might represent an alternative intravesical agent for bladder cancer treatment.” (13)
Cancer can’t always be avoided or prevented, but research suggests that living a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk. Tips for helping to prevent cancer, or lowering the odds that it will reoccur, include:
- Quit smoking and using tobacco or other drugs.
- Get treatment for parasitic infections, recurring UTIs, and other contributing infections. Eating fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics, and taking a probiotic supplement can be really helpful for gut health and boosting immunity.
- Help prevent kidney stones by following a mostly plant-based diet with lots of magnesium-rich foods and high-quality water.
- Practice safe sex and limit your sexual partners. Get tested for STDs regularly to avoid leaving an infection untreated.
- Eat a healthy diet and avoid inflammatory foods. Include a variety of whole foods, especially brightly-colored fruits and vegetables, in your meals each day.
- Stay active since exercise helps boost the immune system. There’s also evidence that exercise can help protect against prostate enlargement, which has many of the same risk factors as bladder cancer.
- Limit exposure to toxins, chemicals and pollutants at work.
- Treat any nutrient deficiencies you may have. Consider taking supplements if you’re lacking key vitamins or minerals in your diet.
- Know your family history. This way you can be tested and catch an illness as early as possible.
Always visit your doctor if you have unexplained blood in your urine (hematuria), especially if you have other bladder cancer symptoms at the same time. Blood in your urine is not necessarily due to cancer, but it’s still important to rule this out and be cautious. Your symptoms may actually be caused by common conditions such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), bladder stones, an overactive bladder, kidney stones or an enlarged prostate.
If you’ve had bladder cancer in the past — even if you’ve been able to overcome it — you should still visit your doctor regularly for follow-up tests for years afterward. Bladder cancer can reoccur and advance to a later stage, so always make sure to stay on top of appointments to be safe. It’s recommended that you get tested often if you are at very high risk, such as due to: past cancer, having birth defects of the bladder, having a family history of cancer, or having past exposure to chemicals/toxins.
- Bladder cancer is cancer that affects the bladder, a hollow organ in the lower part of the abdomen that stores urine until it is passed out of the body.
- Bladder cancer symptoms can include: blood in the urine, painful urination, urinary incontinence, pelvic or abdominal pain, or more advanced symptoms like weakness, nausea, bone or joint pain, and loss of appetite.
- Risk factors for bladder cancer include: being a male, being over the age of 40, having a personal or family history of cancer, smoking or a history of alcoholism, or a past of frequent infections that affect the urinary tract.