Improper bladder cancer treatment costing lives

You may not know it, but bladder cancer is the fifth most common form of cancer in the U.S. More than 70,000 Americans were diagnosed with the disease last year, and nearly 15,000 died from it.

New research shows a big problem may be that almost no one gets the recommended treatment, as CBS News correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports.

Six years ago, Adam Schaffer was enjoying Thanksgiving with his family until, he said, "I went to the bathroom, and there was a whole bunch of red. And it was very scary."

He was just 44 years old. The doctor's diagnosis floored him.

"He said you have bladder cancer," Schaffer recalled. "And you could feel the room spinning."

His first doctor removed the tumor but did not follow up with standard recommended treatment. Failure to follow guidelines is dangerously common and one reason bladder cancer survival has not improved in 25 years, says UCLA's Dr. Karim Chamie.

"If we were to get a report card based on our performance with these guideline measures, I'd say we'd be failing our patients right now," said Chamie, a uric oncologist at the schools' Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Learn more about bladder cancer

For the first two years after finding early bladder cancer, doctors are supposed to test the urine for abnormal cells and examine the inside of the bladder every three months. They're also supposed to fill it with an anti-cancer drug at least six times.

But among 4,500 patients in a recent study, only one received that recommended care. And 42 percent of doctors failed to perform those tests even once -- the bare minimum.

"If we miss the boat we're going to lose them," Chamie said. "These are all potentially curable patients."

Dr Bernard Bochner from Memorial Sloan Kettering specializes in bladder cancer. He says it's unclear why follow-up is so poor.

"This is certainly not acceptable within the medical community," he said. "We need to do a better job, there's no question about that."

Schaffer says he's doing well now because he found a new doctor -- and the right care. He credits his new team with saving his life.

Bladder cancer that hasn't spread has a 50-to-70 percent chance of recurring. That's why it's so important to stay on top of it.

Over 25 years, bladder cancer survival has not improved. It remains the most expensive cancer to treat. It gets among the lowest amount of funding of all cancers. There's no reason why patients aren't getting proper care. The disease needs more attention, more advocacy, and better-educated doctors.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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