Even if you’re vigilant about getting routine GYN care, bladder cancer may not be on your radar. After all, it’s far more common among men than women, and the majority of cases affect patients over age 65. However, don’t let those stats keep you from learning to spot the symptoms.
Many people mistakenly think bladder cancer is only a disease of older men, but there are more than 18,000 women who are diagnosed with this cancer every year in the United States. Because women may not be on the lookout for early signs of bladder cancer, the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network reports that women are more likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer at an advanced stage.
Knowing the signs and symptoms can help you get diagnosed sooner, which may improve your prognosis. Here are five warning signs to watch for:
- Blood in your urine. This is the most common early symptom of bladder cancer, and it’s an easy one for women to overlook because it’s typically painless and you can go weeks or even months between occurrences. Many women ignore this symptom because they connect it with menstruation or menopause. Women who have microscopic blood in the urine without symptoms of urgency, frequency or pain often don’t have a urinary tract infection (UTI). In fact, the blood in the urine may be due to cancer or other conditions.
- UTI-like symptoms. Bladder cancer can often be mistaken for a UTI because many of the symptoms overlap. Patients may experience increased frequency of urination, urgency to urinate, pain with urination, or urinary incontinence. If you’ve noticed any urinary problems—you have to go all the time, or you feel like you have to go but can’t, or you have a hard time emptying your bladder—or if antibiotics don’t seem to be helping your UTI symptoms, talk to your doctor.
- Unexplained pain. Pain is often associated with more advanced bladder cancers. Pain can occur in the flank area, abdomen, or pelvis. Patients can also develop pain in their bones if the cancer has spread to their bones. If you’re having aches and pains in those areas, tell your doctor—especially if you’ve also had the aforementioned spotting or UTI symptoms.
- Decreased appetite. Appetite loss is a common cancer symptom, and bladder cancer is no exception. If the cancer has grown or spread, you might have weight loss or feel tired and weak. Of course, there are plenty of other things that can mess with your appetite, so don’t automatically assume the worst—but do talk to your doctor about it if it persists.
- Smoking. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 50% of women diagnosed with bladder cancer are smokers. Smoking is the biggest risk factor for bladder cancer. If you notice any of the above symptoms and you smoke, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
Because it’s easy to chalk up symptoms to a stubborn UTI or normal vaginal spotting, bladder cancer may be overlooked in women, and they are often not diagnosed until their cancer has spread and it’s harder to treat. So if you’re worried, don’t just write off your symptoms. A urogynecologist is the perfect type of doctor to determine if it’s a minor infection or something more serious—and if it is bladder cancer, it’s easier to treat if you catch it early.