Healthy Living

Could Persistent UTI-like Symptoms be Bladder Cancer?

Jun. 23, 2015
With approximately 73,000 cases being diagnosed annually, bladder cancer is the sixth most common type of cancer in the U.S. Each year, about 15,000 deaths occur from this disease. Dr. Elizabeth Guancial, an oncologist at UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute, shares reasons why women tend to be diagnosed with bladder cancer later than men and what both genders should look for in terms of symptoms.
doctor speaking with female patient   
While bladder cancer is more prevalent among men, women can get it, too. When they do, their diagnosis tends to be delayed, and therefore, women diagnosed with bladder cancer tend to present with later stages of the disease. That is at least in part to the main symptom of bladder cancer—gross hematuria, or blood in the urine—being more easily shrugged off as something else when compared to men.
When a woman discovers visible blood in her urine, she may ignore it for a while, possibly assuming it is due to menstruation or menopause. Blood in the urine may also easily be misdiagnosed as post-menopausal bleeding or a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Unfortunately, the most common symptom of bladder cancer—blood in the urine—is also a common symptom of a UTI. Other UTI symptoms include irritation or pain when urinating or a frequent and urgent need to urinate and can also be symptoms of bladder cancer.  
Because UTIs and bladder cancer share symptoms, bladder cancer can be challenging to diagnose. Therefore, when a woman has a UTI or is experiencing blood in the urine, it’s strongly recommended that she monitor her health to keep track of her symptoms and how long she’s had them. Blood in the urine is never normal, and if it does not go away after a course of antibiotics for a UTI, go back to your doctor. Speak up if medicine for a UTI does not improve urinary symptoms.
Additionally, be aware that smoking is the biggest risk factor for bladder cancer. Fifty percent of all bladder cancer cases are in people with a history of smoking, so this is another reason to quit smoking. If you do smoke or have a history of smoking, make sure to share that information with your primary care doctor so it can be factored into any recommended referrals or tests. If blood in the urine or other UTI-like symptoms persist or if you have certain risk factors, your primary care physician may refer you to a urologist who can run tests to examine the bladder and collect a biopsy if needed.
Remember, UTIs are very common, but blood in the urine is not normal. The earlier bladder cancer is caught, the more manageable it is to treat, so it is important for patients diagnosed with UTI to keep an eye on their symptoms and talk to their doctor if the situation does not improve. 
Elizabeth Guiancial, MD
Elizabeth Guancial, M.D., is a medical oncologist with UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute. Her research and experience focuses on bladder and other genitourinary cancers.