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Urologic cancers 101: Be in the know so you can catch it early

Posted January 11, 2021 by Naveen K Arora, MD

man sitting talking to his health care provider

Bladder cancer is the most common urologic cancer in both men and women. Each year, about 57,000 men and 18,000 women are diagnosed with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But, urologic cancers don’t only affect the bladder. They also can affect the kidneys, ureter (tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder), urethra, and specifically in men, the penis, prostate and testicles.

In fact, the CDC states prostate cancer as the most common cancer (aside from skin cancer) in men and the leading cause of cancer death for men in this country.

Urologic cancers occur when growths of abnormal cells form in the organs of the urinary tract, as well as the male reproductive system. The urinary tract is our body’s drainage system. It removes urine, which is essential for waste removal and the elimination of toxins. If one of these vital organs is disrupted, the entire system can be affected.

Though the direct cause of urologic cancers is unknown, many medical experts agree they may be linked to environmental, lifestyle, genetic or other factors.

The good news is the methods for diagnosing and treating urologic cancers have vastly improved in the last few decades and have led to better outcomes. Today, patients have many options for treatment to suit their needs.

Summa Health discusses risk factors, symptoms and treatments for the most common urologic cancers. It’s important to be in the know because urologic cancers are highly treatable and curable if caught early.

Bladder cancer

Bladder cancer is more common in men and occurs most often in people over the age of 55. If you smoke, experience frequent bladder inflammation or have been exposed to radiation and certain chemotherapy medications, you might be at a higher risk for bladder cancer.

Symptoms for the disease most commonly include blood in the urine. You might also feel pain in the pelvis or back, and experience frequent urination.

If bladder cancer is suspected, a physician will examine your urine and perform an evaluation on the urinary tract to look for abnormal tissue. A biopsy may be taken for examination.

Surgery is used to treat most types of bladder cancer. The type of surgery you might need will depend on how deep the bladder cancer goes into the wall of the bladder. If the cancer has spread, it is possible to need chemotherapy, immunotherapy or radiation.

Kidney cancer

For kidney cancer, abnormal cells may grow in the tissues or tubes within the kidney. Renal cell carcinoma is the most common and accounts for roughly 9 out of 10 kidney cancers.

Your risk for the disease increases as you age. If you smoke, are obese, have high blood pressure or received long-term dialysis treatment for kidney failure, you might be at a higher risk for kidney cancer.

Early stages of it typically don’t show any symptoms, but symptoms for advanced kidney cancer may include blood in the urine, and pain or a lump in your back or side.

If kidney cancer is suspected, a physician will examine your urine, take blood tests and perform imaging tests to detect tumors.

Most kidney cancers are found early and before they spread, which makes the tumors easier to treat. In most cases, surgery is used to remove the tumor. If additional treatment is required, immunotherapy may be used.

Urethral cancer

Urethral cancer is rare, making up only 1 or 2 percent of urologic cancers. It is most common in older women or people who have had bladder cancer in the past. The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the body.

If you’re older than 60, have had bladder cancer, have frequent urinary tract infections or had a sexually transmitted disease that led to inflammation of the urethra, you may be at a higher risk of urethral cancer.

Symptoms are similar to bladder cancer and include blood in the urine, pain in the pelvis area and frequent urination. You may also notice a weak urine flow or an inability to hold it when you have to go.

To diagnose urethral cancer, a physician may perform a physical exam of the pelvis and rectal areas. A blood test, urine sample and a biopsy also will likely be ordered to look for abnormal cells.

Like bladder and kidney cancers, surgery is the most common treatment to remove the tumor. Your doctor also may recommend radiation or chemotherapy to kill the cancer cells.

Prostate cancer

Your risk of prostate cancer increases as you age. If you’re over age 50, are obese and eat a high-fat diet, or are African-American, you may have an increased risk of developing prostate cancer.

Early stages of the disease typically don’t show symptoms, but signs of advanced stages may include trouble urinating, weak urine stream, blood in the urine, or semen and erectile dysfunction.

Usually prostate cancer is detected early and, therefore, the prognosis is positive for a successful treatment. Two main screening tests — the prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test and the digital rectal examination (DRE) — are both used to detect cancer early. Imaging tests and a biopsy also may be used to determine whether you have prostate cancer.

Surgery to remove the prostate altogether and some surrounding tissue is the most common treatment. As with many other urologic cancers, chemotherapy, radiation or immunotherapy, among other treatments, may also be used to kill cancer cells.

Penile cancer

Penile cancer, which can grow on or in a man’s penis, is rare and even less common in men who were circumcised as a baby.

If you have HPV or AIDS, smoke, are not circumcised or have received treatment for psoriasis, you may be at a higher risk for penile cancer.

Symptoms for the disease include changes in the skin thickness or color, a blister or sore on the penis, a wart-like growth that oozes, bleeding or abnormal discharge under the foreskin.

If penile cancer is suspected, your doctor will perform a physical exam with additional tests, such as a biopsy or imaging scans, to diagnose it.

Penile cancer is highly treatable, especially if found early. If the tumor is on top of the skin, it may be treated with skin cream or radiation. Surgery may also be used to remove the tumor. If the cancer is only in the foreskin, circumcision may be sufficient to remove the cancer.

For advanced cases, however, a combination of surgery to remove a portion or the entire penis, chemotherapy and radiation may be necessary.

Testicular cancer

The testicles are the male sex organs that produce sperm and are held in the pouch called the scrotum. Though rare, testicular cancer is the most common cancer in young American men between the ages of 15 and 35 years.

If you have an undescended testicle or had abnormal testicle development, you may be at a greater risk for testicular cancer.

Self-exams are extremely important in early diagnosis. Symptoms of the disease include a lump or swelling in the scrotum, pain or a sense of heaviness in the scrotum or groin.

If testicular cancer is suspected, a physician will perform a physical exam, along with additional tests, such as a blood test and imaging scans, to diagnose it.

Testicular cancer is highly treatable, especially when caught early. In most cases, surgery is used to remove the testicle and followed by chemotherapy, radiation or surveillance.

For more information on urologic cancers, contact the Summa Health Urology Team at 330.374.1255 or Our physicians provide urology services that utilize innovative therapies, treatments, minimally invasive techniques and robotic surgery.

Naveen K Arora, MD

Naveen K Arora, MD

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