Treating Bladder Cancer: Radiation

Woman on radiation table while technician prepares machine for radiation therapy.Radiation is a way of treating cancer. Radiation uses beams of energy to kill cancer cells. The cancer cells die and healthy cells take their place. Radiation may be used alone or with chemotherapy, and may be done after surgery.

Destroying cancer cells with radiation

Your radiation oncologist designs a treatment plan for you. This plan is based on an evaluation of your disease and overall health. Radiation may be directed at the bladder itself and other areas to which the cancer may have spread, such as nearby lymph nodes in the pelvis. 

During treatment

You’re asked to change into a gown. A technician positions you on the table. Often small pinpoints of ink or tiny dots of permanent tattoos are put on your skin to help point the radiation at the same area each day. Short doses of radiation are aimed at the target areas. The treatment is not painful. Each treatment lasts a few minutes and is usually given once a day, 5 days a week, for several weeks. Because some nearby tissue is affected, you may have side effects.

After treatment

You can return to your normal activities soon after each visit. You may still notice some side effects after your full course of treatment has ended. Most side effects can be treated, so talk to your healthcare provider about any problems you have. They usually clear up within a few weeks.


Short-term side effects

Possibilities include the following: 

  • Mild to moderate diarrhea

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Bladder irritation (burning, frequent urination)

  • Mild fatigue (low energy)

  • Some loss of pubic hair and skin changes (often like a sunburn) in the treated area

  • Blood in the urine

  • Vaginal irritation, burning, discharge and dryness (women) 

  • Rectal irritation or bleeding (rare)


Risks and possible complications

Possibilities include the following: 

  • Continued bladder irritation

  • Loss of bladder control (incontinence) 

  • Impotence (problems with erections)

  • Bleeding from bladder (rare)

  • Permanent damage to intestine or rectum (rare)

  • Early menopause (women)