Bladder cancer may not be on your radar even if you’re vigilant about getting routine GYN care. 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.
More than 17,000 women are diagnosed with bladder cancer every year in the United States. The Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network reports that women are more likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer at an advanced stage because they may not be on the lookout for early signs.
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 the urine. This is the most common early symptom of bladder cancer. It’s easy for women to overlook because it’s typically painless and can go weeks or even months between occurrences. Many women ignore this symptom because they attribute it to menstruation or menopause.
- UTI-like symptoms. Bladder cancer can be mistaken for a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) because many of the symptoms overlap. Patients may experience increased frequency and urgency of urination, 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. More advanced bladder cancers are often associated with pain. 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 experience 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.
Bladder cancer may be overlooked in women because it’s easy to chalk up symptoms to a stubborn UTI or normal vaginal spotting. Unfortunately, this means women are often diagnosed after the cancer has spread and it’s harder to treat. So if you’re worried, don’t just write off your symptoms. Call your doctor to determine if it’s a minor infection or something more serious. If it is bladder cancer, it’s easier to treat if you catch it early.