Even if you’re vigilant about getting regular breast exams, Pap smears, and skin checks, bladder cancer may not really 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. But 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,” says Arjun Balar, M.D., an oncologist at NYLangone Medical Center. “But there are more than 18,000 women who are diagnosed with this cancer every year in the United States.”
And because women may not be on the lookout for early bladder cancer symptoms, the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network reports that women are more likely to be diagnosed with bladder cancer at an advanced stage. Knowing the symptoms can help you get diagnosed sooner, which can improve your prognosis.
Here are a few 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—especially 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,” Balar says. “Blood in the urine doesn’t always mean you have bladder cancer, but it’s important to discuss with your doctor.”
Bladder cancer can often be mistaken for a urinary tract infection, because many of the symptoms overlap. “Patients may experience increased frequency of urination, urgency to urinate, pain with urination, or urinary incontinence,” says Susan Constantino, M.D., an oncologist with UF Health Cancer Centre at Orlando Health. If you’ve noticed any pee-related 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.
“Pain is often associated with more advanced bladder cancers,” Constantino says. “The pain can be 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.
Appetite loss is a common cancer symptom, and bladder cancer is no exception. If the cancer has grown or spread, Balar says, “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.
Okay, so this isn’t technically a symptom—but according to the National Institutes of Health, about 50 percent of women diagnosed with bladder cancer are smokers. “Smoking is the biggest risk factor for bladder cancer,” Constantino says. If you notice any of the above symptoms and you smoke, let your doctor know ASAP.
Because it’s easy to chalk up the symptoms to a stubborn UTI or normal spotting, Balar says, “Bladder cancer may be overlooked in women, and they are 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. Your doctor can 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.