It's not something people talk about a lot, but November is Bladder Health Month.
The week of Nov. 17-23, doctors are putting a special emphasis on bladder cancer.
It's a subject that hits close to home for me. I am fighting bladder cancer – for the third time. I want to talk about it because maybe I can help you or someone you love.
Bladder cancer is the sixth most common cancer in America. It's not as common or deadly as the top five cancers - breast, lung, colon, prostate and melanoma – but if you hear the words “you have cancer,” it can be just as frightening.
Dr. James Flatt, with Urology Specialists, has practiced medicine in Huntsville since 1991. He told me I’m one of tens of thousands of people, mostly men, who heard that diagnosis this year.
“It's a cancer or a tumor – neoplastic change if you will – in that lining of the bladder. About 80,000 people nationwide are diagnosed with bladder cancer every year. Sixty thousand of them are men."
One in four will die from it. but thankfully – they're the exception.
“Most people do not die of bladder cancer," he said. “It is very treatable and very curable.”
Anybody can get it, but it's most common in older adults. The first symptom is blood in the urine. That's how I discovered mine in 2009.
“Without a doubt,” says Flatt, “that's the thing that gets most people's attention and drives them to go to the doctor."
That's why it's so important to get a yearly checkup, so your doctor can look for signs even at a microscopic level. The nice thing about this cancer, if you can say that, is that there's an easy way for doctors to see it and remove it. Nature provides a natural opening for doctors into the bladder.
When bladder cancer is suspected, your first stop is radiology for a CAT scan. That’s the best way to pinpoint where a problem is. Blood in the urine could be from other issues with the kidneys or other parts of the urinary tract. If something shows up in your bladder, your doctor will schedule a cystoscopy.
"Taking a scope – taking a look up in the bladder. That's when we generally find bladder cancer," said Flatt.
Depending on the stage, your next appointment is at the hospital for outpatient surgery to remove the tumor or tumors. A chemo-therapy solution might be used to wash the bladder to kill any remaining cancer cells. Again, everything is done through the urethra, so recovery is quick.
It worked for me, for a while.
I was cancer-free for 10 years until January of 2019 when it came back. And came back again last month. My doctors still don't understand why I got it – an otherwise healthy, active, relatively young man.
The major risk factors for bladder cancer include, number one, smoking. I've never been a smoker. Number two, workplace exposure to certain chemicals like paints, dyes or petroleum products. I've never worked in an industry like that. And 75 percent of those diagnosed with bladder cancer are over the age of 65.
I was 46.
But, again, it can happen to anyone. What’s worse, when mine came back earlier this year, which doctors say happens to one in three survivors, it came back even stronger.
"So your stage was low, so you did not have significant depth of invasion. But your grade was high, which means that you had a more aggressive cell type," said Flatt.
That means I'll be through six weeks of immuno-therapy with a drug called BCG, to hopefully keep the cancer from coming back ever again.
Flatt describes what happens: "It revs up the immune system in the bladder to look for cells that aren't like what it's supposed to be, namely cancer cells, and tries to get rid of them before they start growing back."
There has been a world-wide shortage of BCG recently. Merck pharmaceuticals, the only company that makes it, has had to ration the drug over the past few years. They say they say have doubled production recently and should have more available soon.
My prognosis is good. I have great support. My wife of 30 years, Patty, my children and their spouses, and all my extended family and friends who have prayed and will continue to pray for me while I go through this. I am blessed.
Please get regular checkups. Have your doctor check for blood in your urine. And if you’re showing symptoms, don’t wait to get things checked out.
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