‘Here’s How I Knew I Had Bladder Cancer’: One Patient’s Story After Learning the Most Common Symptom

Updated: Jun. 06, 2024

There 's one bladder cancer symptom that commonly triggers a visit to the doctor. One survivor shares the sign that helped him catch it at an early stage: "This is a fight you can win."

Bladder cancer, a disease that affects tens of thousands of Americans each year, often begins silently. As cells in the urinary bladder grow uncontrollably, they can form tumors and, if left unchecked, can spread to other parts of the body.

According to the American Cancer Society, 2024 is projected to see approximately 83,190 new cases of bladder cancer in the United States, with an estimated 16,840 deaths from the disease. While these numbers are concerning, there is some good news: Recent years have seen a decline in both new cases and deaths related to bladder cancer.

Mark Tyson, MD, MPH, a urologist with the Mayo Clinic, emphasizes that while bladder cancer can affect anyone, certain groups are at higher risk. “Smokers are three times more likely to get bladder cancer,” Dr. Tyson notes, explaining that the bladder’s role in filtering out toxic chemicals from cigarette smoke can result in cumulative damage over time.

Dr. Tyson adds that age also plays a role, with those over 55 years being more susceptible, and men tend to be more likely to develop the disease than women. Other risk factors for bladder cancer include exposure to harmful chemicals, undergoing prior cancer therapies, chronic bladder inflammation, and a family history of bladder cancer.

Dr. Tyson highlights key symptoms of bladder, which are “usually clear and easy to notice.” These include:

  • Hematuria (blood in the urine)
  • Dysuria (painful urination)
  • An increase in the frequency of urination
  • Back pain

Here, we share the inspiring story of John L., a 69-year-old husband, father, and grandfather from the Cleveland, OH area.

Ahead, discover what prompted John to take action and catch his bladder cancer at a very early stage.

Here’s how I knew I had bladder cancer

By John L., as told to Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO

When you’ve been around the block a few times, you start to think you’ve seen it all. But life has a way of throwing curveballs when you least expect them. For me, that curveball came in the form of bladder cancer.

The bladder cancer signs I couldn’t ignore

I’ve never been one to run to the doctor for every little thing. Having reached my late sixties, I figured some changes in my bathroom habits were just a part of getting older. I was going to the bathroom more often, and sometimes, it felt like my bladder was never quite empty.

At first, I chalked it up to too much coffee or a few too many beers watching the game with my buddies. But then I started noticing something that made me sit up and take notice: Blood in my urine. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to hit me: Alright John, it’s time to get this checked out.

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My bladder cancer diagnosis

After a series of tests, including a cystoscopy (a procedure to see the inside of the bladder) and a biopsy in January 2022, I received the news that would change my world: I had bladder cancer. Specifically, I was diagnosed with the most common type of bladder cancer that they described as non-muscle-invasive, meaning the cancer was confined to the inner layers of the bladder wall.

The good news was that it hadn’t spread, but I have to admit, the diagnosis hit me like a ton of bricks. Cancer was a word I never expected to hear, especially not concerning my body. My mind immediately went to my wife, kids, and grandkids. I knew I had to fight this thing, not just for myself, but for them.

My bladder cancer treatment

My medical team reassured me that this type of cancer was manageable and laid out the battle plan: I’d undergo surgery to remove the cancerous tissue, followed by some immunotherapy treatments.

The surgery, called a transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT), is minimally invasive. As I recall, it only caused me a bit of discomfort and burning when peeing, which eventually subsided. The immunotherapy, where they pumped the treatment right into my bladder, was relatively painless as well. The therapy basically rallies your immune system to seek out and destroy any cancer cells that might have been left behind after surgery.

I had a top-notch team of doctors and nurses that I can’t thank enough. I was nervous about having these procedures done, but they made sure I was comfortable and well taken care of every step of the way.

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Life after I knew I had bladder cancer

It’s been two years since I got the news that turned my world upside down. I’m happy to report that, as of now, I’m cancer-free. I still have to go in for regular check-ups to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back, but so far, so good.

This whole experience has taught me a thing or two. First, don’t ignore your body when it’s trying to tell you something. If I had brushed off the blood in my urine, I probably would have undergone more intense treatment.

Second, I learned not to be afraid to lean on others when the going gets tough. I’ve always been a “pull myself up by my bootstraps” kind of guy, but I couldn’t have gotten through this without my support system.

To any other men or women out there facing a bladder cancer diagnosis, I want you to know that this is a fight you can win. Keep the faith and take it one day at a time.

I never thought I’d say this, but cancer has changed me for the better. It’s given me a new perspective on what’s important in life. And if sharing my story can help even one person, then it’s all been worth it.

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