Bladder Cancer Treatment Options

The bladder is an organ in the lower pelvis responsible for storing urine. When cells in the bladder start to grow out of control, they can form tumors leading to bladder cancer.

Urothelial cancer is the most common form of bladder cancer and impacts around 80,000 people per year. This form of bladder cancer starts in the urothelial cells that line the inside of the bladder. Urothelial cancer may also occur in other areas of the urinary lining such as the inside of the kidneys (renal pelvis) and the tubes connecting the kidneys to the bladder (ureters)

The Weill Cornell Medicine Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program works with a wide range of GU specialists to tailor treatments for each patient depending on their disease type and if they have metastatic disease, which is when the cancer has left the bladder or other areas of the urinary system and spread to other parts of the body through the lymph nodes or bloodstream.

Here are some of the treatment options offered for bladder cancer patients.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a common treatment option for patients with bladder cancer and can be given at a number of times throughout the treatment process. Chemotherapy may be given directly into the bladder or into veins before surgery to make a tumor easier to remove, after surgery or radiation to kill remaining cancer cells, or as a main treatment option for patients with metastatic disease.

Radiation Therapy

Another type of treatment used for bladder cancer is radiation. Radiation may also be given throughout the treatment process. It can be used after surgery, as a main treatment for earlier-stage cancers that may not require or be able to receive surgery or chemotherapy, or as part of a treatment regimen for advanced or metastatic disease. Radiation is often given along with chemotherapy to help the radiation work better, which is known as chemoradiation.

Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) is a type of radiation therapy that uses x-rays to kill tumor cells. This method is able to deliver radiation precisely to the tumors and may kill tumor cells with fewer doses over a shorter period compared to other types of radiation.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy drugs help the body’s immune system fight cancer by instructing the immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells.

There are a number of approved immunotherapy options that may be given to patients in a variety of different circumstances. Immunotherapy can be used in patients with non-muscle invasive bladder cancer though instillation in the bladder, into veins as an additional therapy after surgery, or into veins for advanced cancer.

One of the most common versions of immunotherapy are drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors. Immune checkpoints are part of the natural body to keep the immune system from attacking normal cells (when this happens, we call it “autoimmunity”). Checkpoint inhibitors target “checkpoints”, or proteins on the immune cells, that cancer cells use to hide from the immune system. These drugs block the checkpoints allowing the body’s immune system to attack the cancer.

Surgery

Surgery is often done before or after other treatments in order to best maximize the results. A number of surgical techniques and options exist depending on the type of bladder cancer and whether or not it has spread beyond the urinary system. These range from endoscopic techniques where a tube is inserted into the urinary system to using cameras (often with the assistance of a robot) to open surgery with incisions through the skin. Sometimes the bladder needs to be removed and there are a number of techniques to either divert urine to the skin (often with a bag) or creation of a new bladder (called neobladder).

Clinical Trials

The Weill Cornell Medicine Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program leads and participates in a number of clinical trials across a spectrum of disease areas, including bladder cancer. Our team is dedicated to evaluating new diagnostic and treatment approaches in order to develop the best options that benefit our patients. Clinical trials may be the right choice for some patients, and we encourage you to speak to your doctor about the options available to you.

Our team is currently leading a clinical trial evaluating the effects of adding radiation therapy to the immunotherapy drug atezolizumab, for the treatment of metastatic bladder cancer. The aim of this trial is to identify if the combination of radiation and immunotherapy may have the ability to boost the results of the immunotherapy drugs and may be more effective at killing tumor cells. Learn more about this trial here.

Another interesting trial has been developed based upon the laboratory work of one of our team members. For patients with bladder cancer invading the muscle layer and needing removal of the bladder (called cystectomy), the usual approach is chemotherapy followed by surgery. However, not all patients are able to safely receive the most effective chemotherapy drug called cisplatin. This trial is evaluating the use of an oral targeted drug called abemaciclib to take prior to surgery for these patients. Learn more about this trial here.

Antibody-drug conjugates are a type of targeted chemotherapy. To date, two have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in various situations. We currently have trials open to enrollment testing two of these antibody-drug conjugates, enfortumab and IMMU-132, either alone or in combination with other drugs.

Our team is continuously working on new research initiatives and clinical trial participation. You can find a full list of our open bladder cancer trials here.

Studies Highlight Erdafitinib as an Encouraging Bladder Cancer Treatment Option

It has been an especially exciting time for our Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program. Our team’s bladder (urothelial) cancer research recently made its way into two prestigious medical journals, with both studies highlighting erdafitinib – an oral inhibitor of fibroblast growth factor receptor (FGFR) – as an encouraging therapeutic option for the disease.

FGFR gene alterations are common in urothelial carcinoma and may be associated with low sensitivity to immunotherapy.

In a phase II study of 99 adults with locally advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma harboring FGFR gene alterations, Dr. Scott Tagawa and colleagues found erdafitinib to demonstrate impressive tumor control and tolerability. Forty percent of patients responded to the drug, and among the 22 patients who had previously received immunotherapy without success, the response rate jumped to 59 percent.

Weill Cornell Medicine“While not yet confirmed by randomized trial results, the fact that these patients with the unique molecular tumor selection were responsive to erdafitinib and resistant to prior lines of standard therapy makes this a pivotal study,” said Dr. Tagawa. “It’s wonderful to now have this option available for our patients early while awaiting results of the confirmatory randomized trial. It highlights the importance of genomic tumor testing.”

The research group’s findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and led to accelerated approval of erdafitinib as the first targeted drug for urothelial carcinoma from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In addition to the use of next-generation sequencing of tumors to more precisely select those most likely to respond, the standard erdafitinib regimen also utilizes individualized dosing. Erdafitinib, partly depending on the dose used, is shown to induce increased phosphorus levels in the blood. As blood phosphorus levels are related to targeting of the key pathway (FGFR), the dose of erdafitinib is increased if phosphorus levels do not significantly increase in the absence of any significant side effect. In a retrospective analysis presented at the 2019 European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) annual meeting, erdafitinib-treated patients with increased blood phosphorus levels had improved outcomes.

Under the leadership of Dr. Bishoy Faltas, an in-depth analysis of the nuanced molecular characteristics of upper-tract urothelial carcinoma (UTUC) – an aggressive cancer occurring in the lining of the ureter and kidney – supports that erdafitinib has potential to improve the effectiveness of immunotherapy in this patient population.

Whole-exome and RNA sequencing of UTUC patient tumors yielded a number of insights into the biology of the disease – chiefly that it has low immune cells (T cells) and high expression of FGFR3. The research team found that inhibiting FGFR3 with erdafitinib increased the activity of BST2, a gene associated with immune system activation. Thus, combining FGFR3 inhibitors such as erdafitinib with a class of immunotherapy drugs called PD-1/PD-L1 inhibitors can serve as a viable treatment strategy for UTUC in the future.

Bishoy_Faltas_Headshot
“By inhibiting FGFR3, we are able to stimulate genes that are associated with activation of the anti-tumor immune response,” said Dr. Faltas. “In the future, we could potentially use this strategy to reverse the T-cell depletion in these tumors.”

Findings from Dr. Faltas et al. were published in Nature Communications.

Erdafitinib is under further investigation and development in an ongoing clinical trial at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian.

A Phase 1b-2 Study to Evaluate Safety, Efficacy, Pharmacokinetics, and Pharmacodynamics of Erdafitinib Plus JNJ-63723283, an Anti-PD-1 Monoclonal Antibody, in Subjects with Metastatic or Surgically Unresectable Urothelial Cancer with Selected FGFR Gene

We are proud to draw upon our longstanding expertise in the bladder cancer field to lead advancements in the understanding and care of this disease, and we hope that sharing our findings will prompt additional discoveries.

 

What Women Need to Know About Sex and Cancer Treatment

Amid the onslaught of questions and worries that can be prompted by a bladder or kidney cancer diagnosis, most women are not immediately concerned with how the disease and its treatment might affect their sex life. Though sex may not be as top-of-mind as issues like survival itself or caring for a family, it is still a significant aspect of quality of life that is worth preserving and nurturing.

Maintaining a healthy sex life while dealing with cancer requires open and honest discussion both between partners as well as with a cancer care provider, but it may be difficult to know exactly what to discuss. We spoke with Dr. Tanaka Dune, a urogynecologist within the Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (WCM/NYP) Center for Female Pelvic Health, and our Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program’s own Dr. Ana Molina to find out how to guide the conversation.


Recognize Changes

Fighting cancer can be physically and mentally exhausting, leaving many women without much energy or desire to engage in sexual activity. Additionally, the potential aesthetic changes to the body caused by treatment, such as scarring, hair loss and weight fluctuation may hamper confidence or lead to feelings of unattractiveness. Yet, if all parties are consenting and communicative, it is safe to have sex during and after cancer treatment.

Women should be aware, however, that certain types of chemotherapy can damage the ovaries and lead to vaginal dryness, irritation and/or atrophy (thinning and shrinking of vaginal tissue due to lack of estrogen), which may cause discomfort during sex and otherwise.

Dune“You should never be aware of your vagina,” says Dr. Dune. “If you become aware, that’s when you need to start talking about it.”

Ask Questions

Healthcare providers work with the best interest of the whole person in mind, so women do not need to be afraid to ask questions or feel embarrassed about how much they do or do not know about sexuality. Clinician assistance often leads to better patient health outcomes, faster. For example, it can be difficult for women to discern between pain in the vagina and pain in the pelvic floor, the network of muscles that supports the vagina and other pelvic organs, and a doctor can ask clarifying questions to determine the appropriate next steps to treat the issue and suppress the pain.

Evaluate Options

As with most elements of cancer care, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating sex during and after treatment.

To combat chemo-induced vaginal dryness, for example, lubrication options are abundant, granting patients the ability to customize based on individual needs and preferences. Certain compounds found in lubricants can trigger yeast infection, irritate the vulva and/or dry out vaginal and anal tissues, so women should avoid using petroleum-based lubricants like mineral oil or Vaseline, as well as those that contain nonoxynol-9, glycerin, glycols or parabens. Instead, they can opt for silicone- or water-based lubricants, or natural oil lubricants like vegetable, olive, peanut, avocado or coconut oil. To reduce vaginal tightness, doctors may recommend use of pelvic floor physical therapists, who teach exercises that involve contracting and relaxing vaginal and pelvic floor muscles. This type of therapy can be achieved manually and/or with the use of vaginal dilators.

For issues of insecurity and anxiety that may disturb some women’s sex lives, possible remedies include psycho-social and/or psycho-sexual support services. The WCM/NYP Genitourinary Oncology Program connects patients and spouses/partners with support groups and counseling and can even offer hair-preserving cold cap therapy or a wig prescription to combat chemotherapy-induced hair loss that may contribute to a lack of confidence.

Molina“Addressing psycho-social issues together with your partner via counseling or support groups can have a positive impact on your life and intimate relationships,” says Dr. Ana Molina.


Since most forms of cancer treatment weaken the immune system, it is especially important that women use barrier protection during oral, anal and vaginal sex to prevent exchange of bodily fluids that can lead to sexually transmitted disease.

Patients should note that while the Internet is a fantastic tool for resources and self-education – often preferred because of the ability to search for information within the comfort of one’s own home – it is best to check with a healthcare team before acting on health advice found online.

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