This is part 2 of an interview with urologist Mark Schoenberg. Please click here for part one of the interview.
Dr. Val: How is bladder cancer treated?
Dr. Schoenberg: Bladder cancer can be grouped into two categories: non-invasive disease and invasive disease. About 80-90% of the time the cancer is formed by the cells of the inner lining of the bladder, ureters, and kidneys and is non-invasive. This type of bladder cancer doesn’t spread or invade the bladder wall, so it doesn’t threaten the life of the patient, but it can recur.
Non-invasive cancers are usually removed surgically via a scope that is inserted into the bladder via the urethra, and then afterwards there are a variety of medicines that can be infused into the bladder. Those medicines are like a kind of weed killer for bladder cancer.
Unfortunately up to 20% of patients have invasive tumors at the time that they are diagnosed. Once the bladder cancer has spread outside the bladder wall, surgery is needed to remove the primary tumor and then IV chemotherapy and sometimes radiation therapy are needed to treat the life threatening, metastatic disease.
Dr. Val: Is there any way to screen for bladder cancer?
Dr. Schoenberg: Unfortunately at this time urine tests for bladder cancer are very expensive, and they don’t detect cancer reliably. However, many researchers (including myself) are currently on a hunt for specific bladder cancer markers that are inexpensive and reliable. Once we find such a marker or group of markers, it would make sense to begin screening — at the very least — high risk groups such as smokers or people with occupational exposures to chemicals.
Dr. Val: What are the most promising advancements in bladder cancer treatment? Is there new research in the pipeline that could improve its diagnosis or treatment?
Dr. Schoenberg: There are two different areas of research interest in bladder cancer. The diagnostics arena — finding cancer more efficiently, effectively, and less invasively — and the therapeutics arena — developing new tools, drugs, and agents to get rid of cancer cells.
On the diagnostic front, molecular diagnostic researchers are looking at abnormal cancer proteins and DNA that can be detected in urine samples. Because of this research, in the next 5-10 years it wouldn’t surprise me if we no longer had to rely on cystoscopes for the diagnosis of bladder cancer. Also we’d like to develop molecular and genetic profiles in order to risk-stratify people more successfully (i.e. figure out who is at greater risk for bladder cancer, and make sure they get tested).
On the treatment front, there are a number of companies developing targeted therapies for bladder cancer. It’s possible that these therapies will reduce the risk of progression and recurrence in people with bladder cancer.
Unfortunately, bladder cancer has only attracted a fraction of the research dollars that other cancers have in patients in the same demographic (like pancreatic cancer). In fact, NIH funding for bladder cancer research is pitifully small and shrinking, despite the fact that there are 600,000 Americans who have bladder cancer right now. Not only that, but bladder cancer is one of the most expensive cancers to treat – because it requires repeated cystoscopies, catheter-based infusions, repeat surgeries, and sometimes chemo and radiation. Bladder cancer treatment costs Americans about 1 billion dollars a year.
Dr. Val: Why isn’t bladder cancer receiving the research funding it deserves?
Dr. Schoenberg: Successful cancer groups have highly visible champions for the disease – like Lance Armstrong for testicular cancer, or Susan G. Koman for breast cancer. Research funding seems to be strongly influenced by highly visible people getting out there and making a ruckus. We need powerful spokespeople to help Diane Quale at the Bladder Cancer Association Network to get the word out.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.