Immunotherapy for bladder cancer

Some people with bladder cancer have immunotherapy. Immunotherapy helps to strengthen or restore the immune system’s ability to fight cancer.

You may have immunotherapy to:

  • kill bladder cancer cells
  • strengthen your immune system
  • stop bladder cancer cells from growing and spreading
  • lower the risk that the cancer will come back (recur)
  • help keep the cancer from coming back after it has already been treated (called maintenance therapy)
  • control symptoms of bladder cancer

Your healthcare team will consider your personal needs to plan the drugs, doses and schedules of immunotherapy. You may also receive other treatments.

Intravesical immunotherapy

Intravesical immunotherapy is when the drug is placed directly into the bladder. The doctor passes a tube (catheter) through the urethra and into the bladder. An immunotherapy drug is given through the tube into the bladder. The drug is left in the bladder for 1 to 2 hours to give it time to work.

The most common drug used for intravesical immunotherapy is bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG). BCG is the same bacteria used to vaccinate against tuberculosis. It contains live, but weak, bacteria that gets your immune system to kill cancer cells in the bladder.

Intravesical immunotherapy may be used to treat stage 0 and stage 1 bladder cancers that are classified as intermediate risk or high risk. It is given after a transurethral resection of bladder tumour (TURBT), once a week for 6 weeks (called induction therapy). To lower the risk of side effects, intravesical immunotherapy is usually started a few weeks after a TURBT.

If there is no cancer remaining after the 6 weeks, more treatment is often given as maintenance therapy. It is given once a week for 3 weeks every 3 to 6 months for up to 3 years.

If cancer still remains after the 6 weeks, another 6 weeks of intravesical immunotherapy is usually offered.

Intravesical immunotherapy is also used to treat bladder cancer that comes back only in the inner lining of the bladder.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy that uses drugs called monoclonal antibodies. The immune system normally stops itself from attacking normal cells in the body by using specific proteins called checkpoints, which are made by some immune system cells. Bladder cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Immune checkpoint inhibitors block the checkpoint proteins so immune system cells (called T cells) can attack and kill the cancer cells.

An immune checkpoint inhibitor may be offered as a second-line therapy for advanced or metastatic bladder cancer that:

  • is still growing during or after chemotherapy that includes cisplatin
  • comes back within 12 months of finishing chemotherapy

The immune checkpoint inhibitors used for bladder cancer target the PD-1 or PD-L1 checkpoint protein. They are:

  • pembrolizumab (Keytruda) – most commonly used
  • durvalumab (Imfinzi)
  • atezolizumab (Tecentriq)
  • avelumab (Bavencio)

Avelumab may also be offered as a maintenance therapy after chemotherapy.

The drug is given through a needle into a vein (intravenous infusion) once every 2 or 3 weeks until the disease progresses or the side effects outweigh the benefits of having the treatment.

Monoclonal antibodies

Enfortumab vedotin (Padcev) is a type of monoclonal antibody. You may be offered enfortumab vedotin if you have already been treated with cisplatin or carboplatin and a PD-1 or PD-L1 immune checkpoint inhibitor. It may also be offered if you can't be treated with cisplatin or carboplatin.

Side effects

Side effects can happen with any type of treatment for bladder cancer, but everyone’s experience is different. Some people have many side effects. Other people have few or none at all.

Side effects of immunotherapy will depend mainly on the type of drug, the dose, how it’s given and your overall health.

Intravesical BCG may cause these side effects:

  • a need to urinate (pee) more often than usual (frequent urination)
  • an intense need to urinate (urgent urination)
  • burning during urination
  • flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, fatigue and an achy body
  • loss of appetite

Immune checkpoint inhibitors or monoclonal antibodies may cause these side effects:

You will have blood tests frequently to check how your body is reacting to immunotherapy. If you have inflammation, your doctor may give you steroids.

Report side effects

Be sure to report side effects to the healthcare team. Side effects can happen any time during, immediately after or a few days or weeks after immunotherapy. Sometimes late side effects develop months or years later. Most side effects go away on their own or can be treated, but some side effects may last a long time or become permanent.

Your healthcare team is there to help. The sooner you tell them of any problems, the sooner they can suggest ways to help you deal with them.

Information about specific cancer drugs

Details on specific drugs change regularly. Find out more about sources of drug information and where to get details on specific drugs.

Questions to ask about immunotherapy

Find out more about immunotherapy. To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about immunotherapy.

Expert review and references

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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