What is metastatic bladder cancer?

Metastatic bladder cancer means the cancer has spread from where it started in your bladder to another part of the body. It is sometimes called advanced bladder cancer.

Doctors also use the terms primary and secondary cancer. A primary cancer is where a cancer starts, for example primary bladder cancer. The cancer cells can break away from the primary cancer and settle and grow in another part of the body. This new cancer growth is called secondary cancer. Secondary cancers are also called metastases.

You might have metastatic bladder cancer when you are first diagnosed. Or it may come back some time after you finished treatment. This is called recurrent or relapsed cancer.

Where can bladder cancer spread to?

Not all bladder cancers will spread. But If it does it's most likely to spread to the structures close to the bladder, such as the ureters, urethra, prostate, vagina, or into the pelvis. This is called local spread.

Bladder cancer can also spread to another part of the body. This is secondary cancer or metastasis. The places it's most likely to spread to are your:

  • lymph nodes in the pelvis and tummy (abdomen)
  • lungs
  • liver
  • bones
Diagram showing metastatic bladder cancer

Tests to diagnose metastatic bladder cancer

You might have a few tests to help diagnose metastatic bladder cancer. These can be similar to tests to diagnose bladder cancer, so you might have had some of them before.

Treatment for metastatic bladder cancer

When bladder cancer has spread to another part of the body, treatment is not likely to cure it. But it might control the cancer for some time and help to reduce any symptoms. 

Possible treatment options include:

  • chemotherapy
  • targeted cancer drugs or immunotherapy
  • radiotherapy to the part of the body where the cancer has spread
  • surgery to remove cancer in the bladder
  • surgery to unblock the ureters or urethra
  • drugs to strengthen the bones
  • joining a clinical trial

How you might feel

Finding out that you can’t be cured is distressing and can be a shock. It’s common to feel uncertain and anxious. It's normal to not be able to think about anything else.

Lots of information and support is available to you, your family and friends. Some people find it helpful to find out more about their cancer and the treatments they might have. Many people find that knowing more about their situation can make it easier to cope.

    Talk to your doctor or specialist nurse to understand:

    • what your diagnosis means

    • what is likely to happen

    • what treatment is available

    • how treatment can help you

    • what the side effects of the treatment are

    • Coping and Prognostic Awareness in Patients With Advanced Cancer
      R D Nipp and others
      Journal of Clinical Oncology,  2017. Volume 35, Number 22, Pages 2551 – 2558

    • End of life care for adults
      National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2011) Updated March 2017. 

    • Bladder cancer: diagnosis and management
      National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2015

    • EAU Guidelines on Muscle-invasive and Metastatic Bladder Cancer
      J A Witjes and others
      European Association of Urology, 2022

    Last reviewed: 
    02 Dec 2022
    Next review due: 
    02 Dec 2025

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