10,000 Brits a year are diagnosed with bladder cancer, but many may not know the symptoms to watch out for – as they can be easily mistaken for other medical issues including urinary tract infections or kidney stones.
May is bladder cancer awareness month, and the NHS highlights the symptoms to look out for in case you need to seek medical help for what is the 11th most common form of cancer in the country.
Blood in your wee is an obvious symptom to watch out for, but it’s not the only one. And smoking is the single biggest cause of bladder cancer, but there are others to be aware of.
Most common symptoms to watch out for
The NHS warns that haematuria – the medical name for blood in your urine – is a symptom to be wary of. It is usually painless, and the NHS guidance explains how you may notice streaks of blood in your urine or the blood may turn your urine brown. The blood isn’t always noticeable and it may come and go.
Less common symptoms include:
- a need to urinate on a more frequent basis
- sudden urges to urinate
- a burning sensation when passing urine
More shockingly, sign of advanced cancer which may have spread include pelvic pain, bone pain, unintentional weight loss and swelling of the legs.
When to seek medical advice
If you have blood in your urine – even if it comes and goes – you should visit your GP, so the cause can be investigated. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, as there are more common causes of haematuria.
- a urinary tract infections (UTIs), such as cystitis
- a kidney infection
- kidney stones
- non-gonococcal urethritis
- an enlarged prostate gland, in men
What causes bladder cancer
Bladder cancer is caused by changes to the cells of the bladder. It’s often linked with exposure to certain chemicals, but the cause isn’t always known.
Smoking is the single biggest risk factor for bladder cancer. This is because tobacco contains cancer-causing (carcinogenic) chemicals. If you smoke for many years, these chemicals pass into your bloodstream and the bladder is thus repeatedly exposed to them.
This can cause changes to the cells of the bladder lining, which may lead to bladder cancer. It’s estimated that more than a third of all cases of bladder cancer are caused by smoking. People who smoke may be up to 4 times more likely to develop bladder cancer than non-smokers.
Exposure to chemicals
Exposure to certain industrial chemicals is the second biggest risk factor. Previous studies have estimated that this may account for around 25% of cases.
Chemicals known to increase the risk of bladder cancer include:
- aniline dyes
Occupations linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer are manufacturing jobs involving:
- leather tanning
Some non-manufacturing jobs have also been linked to an increased risk of bladder cancer. These include taxi or bus drivers, as a result of their regular exposure to the chemicals present in diesel fumes.
The link between bladder cancer and these types of occupations was discovered in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, strict regulations limit exposure to cancer-causing chemical, which should limit the risk to people working in manufacturing jobs. However, these chemicals are still linked with cases of bladder cancer now, as it can take up to 30 years after initial exposure for cancer to develop.
Other risk factors
Other factors that can increase your risk of bladder cancer include:
- radiotherapy to treat previous cancers near the bladder, such as bowel cancer
- previous treatment with certain chemotherapy medications, such as cyclophosphamide and cisplatin
- having certain treatments for type 2 diabetes
- having a tube in your bladder (an indwelling catheter) for a long time, because you have nerve damage that has resulted in paralysis
- long-term or repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- long-term bladder stones
- an untreated infection called schistosomiasis (bilharzia), which is caused by a parasite that lives in fresh water – this is very rare in the UK
If in doubt, make an appointment with your GP.
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