Patients with stage IV bladder cancer have cancer that has extended through the bladder wall and invaded the pelvic and/or abdominal wall and/or has lymph node involvement and/or spread to distant sites. Stage IV bladder cancer is also referred to as “metastatic” bladder cancer.
A variety of factors ultimately influence a patient’s decision to receive treatment of cancer. The purpose of receiving cancer treatment may be to improve symptoms through local control of the cancer, increase a patient’s chance of cure or prolong a patient’s survival. The potential benefits of receiving cancer treatment must be carefully balanced with the potential risks of receiving cancer treatment.
The following is a general overview of the treatment of stage IV bladder cancer. Circumstances unique to your situation ultimately influence how these general treatment principles are applied to your situation. The information on this Web site is intended to help educate you about your treatment options and to facilitate a mutual or shared decision-making process with your treating cancer physician.
Currently, only a minority of patients with stage IV bladder cancer can be cured following treatment with standard therapies. This is because most patients have cancer that has already spread outside the area of the pelvis. Because the majority of patients with stage IV bladder cancer have disease that has already spread and cannot be removed with surgery, systemic treatment that can kill cancer cells throughout the body is necessary. Standard systemic treatment consists of chemotherapy, immunotherapy and precision cancer medicines, and occasionally surgery and radiation. Participation in a clinical trial should be considered and may offer access to better treatments and advance the existing knowledge about treatment of bladder cancer.
Some patients with bladder cancer have stage IV disease based only on the presence of local lymph node involvement and they have no evidence of distant spread of cancer. These patients with involvement of pelvic organs by direct extension and small volume metastasis to regional lymph nodes can be managed the same as stage III patients if all the cancer can be surgically removed by radical cystectomy and bilateral lymph node dissection.
Systemic Treatment of Stage IV Bladder Cancer
Before the development of effective chemotherapy, the average survival of patients with stage IV bladder cancer was only 3-6 months from diagnosis. Bladder cancer, however, is sensitive to chemotherapy and may respond to treatment frequently and rapidly. Although long-term survival has been reported in some patients, chemotherapy is administered primarily to improve the symptoms of bladder cancer. Patients in good clinical condition should enter treatment with curative intent because some patients have prolonged remissions without cancer recurrences.
Combinations of chemotherapy agents are usually used for treatment of bladder cancer, as no single chemotherapy agent will produce a complete response in more than an occasional patient. Two commonly used chemotherapy regimens are GC and MVAC. GC is the combination of Gemzar® (gemcitabine) and cisplatin. MVAC is the combination of methotrexate, vinblastine, doxorubicin, and cisplatin.1,2
Precision Cancer Immunotherapy
Precision cancer immunotherapy medicines that inhibit PD-1 and PD-L1 work in bladder cancer and they are collectively referred to as “checkpoint inhibitors”. Checkpoint inhibitors create their anti-cancer effect by blocking specific proteins used by cancer cells called PD-1 and PD-L1. Once PD-L1 is blocked, cells of the immune system are able to identify cancer cells as a threat and initiate an attack to destroy the cancer.3,4,5,6 Checkpoint inhibitors improve survival duration when combined with chemotherapy or administered alone and can be also be used as "maintenance" therapy.
- Keytruda (pembrolizumab)3
- Imfinzi (durvalumab)5
- Tecentriq (atezolizumab)12
- Bavencio (avelumab)8,11
- Opdivo (nivolumab)10
Precision Cancer Medicines
Precision cancer medicine utilizes molecular diagnostic testing, including DNA sequencing, to identify cancer-driving abnormalities in a cancer’s genome. Once a genetic abnormality is identified a specific targeted therapy can be designed to attack a specific mutation or other cancer-related change in the DNA programming of the cancer cells.
Trodelvy (Sacituzumab govitecan) is a precision cancer medicine that is designed to deliver a toxic payload directly to the cancer cells. The drug is a fusion of an antibody that recognizes a protein expressed by cancer cells known as trop2 and the metabolite of an established chemotherapy drug (irinotecan), SN-38. Trop-2, a calcium signal transducer that drives cancer cell growth in some patients.9
Surgery for Stage IV Bladder Cancer
Radical cystectomy (removal of the bladder, tissue around the bladder, the prostate and seminal vesicles in men and the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, anterior vaginal wall and urethra in women, with or without pelvic lymph node dissection) is sometimes recommended for treatment of patients with stage IV bladder cancer to control local spread and the complications this creates. Surgery is also utilized after an incomplete response of the primary cancer to radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
Strategies to Improve Treatment
Most new treatments are developed in clinical trials. Clinical trials are studies that evaluate the effectiveness of new treatment strategies. The development of more effective cancer treatment for bladder cancer requires that new and innovative therapies be evaluated in patients. Participation in a clinical trial may offer access to better treatments and advance the existing knowledge about treatment of bladder cancer. Patients who are interested in participating in a clinical trial should discuss the risks and benefits with their physician.
Precision Cancer Medicines
Precision cancer medicine uses targeted drugs and immunotherapies engineered to directly attack the cancer cells with specific abnormalities, leaving normal cells largely unharmed. Precision medicines are being developed for the treatment of bladder cancer and patients should ask their doctor about undergoing genomic testing to determine whether treatment with a precision cancer medicine is an option. Individuals should consider participating in clinical trials evaluating precision medicines alone or in combination with other systemic cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.
About Padcev (Enfortumab Vedotin)is a novel precision cancer medicine known as an antibody drug conjugate, a type of therapy that combines an antibody that targets a specific protein on the surface of tumor cells with a payload of powerful chemotherapy. It is composed of an anti-Nectin-4 monoclonal antibody attached to a microtubule-disrupting agent, MMAE. Padcev targets Nectin-4, a cell adhesion molecule identified as an ADC target which is expressed on many solid tumors. This antibody is chemically linked with an agent that penetrates the tumor cell and destroys its structure.11
In the original multi-institutional clinical trial reported at ASCO 2019 Padcev produced responses in 44% of patients with locally advanced or metastatic urothelial cancer who had been previously treated with chemotherapy and checkpoint inhibitors. Among 125 patients who had received both standard chemotherapy plus a checkpoint inhibitor and Padcev, 12% had a complete response with no detectable sign of cancer and the median overall survival was 11.7 months. Notably, 38% of people whose cancer had spread to the liver responded to the treatment.
Herceptin® (trastuzumab); a drug used to treat breast cancers that over express a protein known as HER2) may be effective in combination with chemotherapy for patients with HER2-positive advanced bladder cancer.7
New Chemotherapy Regimens: Development of new multi-drug chemotherapy treatment regimens that incorporate new or additional anti-cancer therapies for use as treatment is an active area of clinical research carried out in phase II clinical trials.
Phase I Clinical Trials: New chemotherapy or immunotherapy drugs continue to be developed and evaluated in patients with recurrent cancers in phase I clinical trials. The purpose of phase I trials is to evaluate new anti-cancer medications in order to determine the safety and tolerability of a drug and the best way of administering the drug to patients.
1 von der Maase H, Hansen SW, Robers JY et al. Gemcitabine and cisplatin versus methotrexate, vinblastine, doxorubicin, and cisplatin in advanced or metastatic bladder cancer: results of a large, randomized, multinational, multicenter, phase III study. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2000;18:3068-77.
2 von der Maase H, Sengelov L, Roberts JT et al. Long-term survival results of a randomized trial comparing gemcitabine plus cisplatin, with methotrexate, vinblastine, doxorubicin, plus cisplatin in patients with bladder cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2005;20:4602-8.
4 United States Food and Drug Administration. (2016.) News Release. FDA approves new, targeted treatment for bladder cancer.
6 FDA approves new, targeted treatment for bladder cancer. Accessed May 31, 2016.
7 Hussain MHA, MacVicar GR, Petrylak DP et al. Trastuzumab, paclitaxel, carboplatin, and gemcitabine in advanced human epidermal growth factor receptor-2/neu-positive urothelial carcinoma: results of a multicenter phase II National Cancer Institute Trial. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2007;25:2218-2224.
8 Maintenance avelumab + best supportive care (BSC) versus BSC alone after platinum-based first-line (1L) chemotherapy in advanced urothelial carcinoma (UC): JAVELIN Bladder 100 phase III interim analysis.
9 US Food and Drug Administration. FDA grants accelerated approval to sacituzumab govitecan for advanced urothelial cancer. Accessed April 13, 2021.