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Radiation therapy is treatment with high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. The type of radiation most often used to treat bladder cancer uses radiation from outside of the body on the cancer.

Before your treatments start, careful measurements will be done to decide on the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. The treatment is much like getting an x-ray, but the dose is stronger. The treatment itself is painless and lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time – getting you into place for treatment – usually takes longer. Most often, radiation treatments are given 5 days a week for several weeks.

Radiation can be used:

  • As part of the treatment for early stage bladder cancer, after surgery
  • As the main treatment for people with early stage cancers who can’t have surgery
  • As part of the treatment for advanced bladder cancers
  • To help prevent or treat symptoms caused by advanced bladder cancers

Radiation is often combined with chemotherapy to help it work better.

Side effects of radiation

Side effects of radiation depend on the dose given and the place being treated. They tend to be worse if chemotherapy is given with the radiation. Side effects can include:

  • Skin changes in areas getting radiation, ranging from redness to blisters and sores
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Bladder symptoms, like burning or pain when you urinate, feeling the need to go often, or blood in the urine
  • Diarrhea
  • Tiredness
  • Low blood counts, which can lead to fatigue, easy bruising or bleeding, or increased risk of infection

These problems usually go away after treatment ends. Some people can have long-term side effects such as problems holding urine, blood in the urine, or pain when urinating. If you have any side effects, you should talk to your doctor. Often there are ways to help.

For more on radiation therapy, see the Radiation therapy section of our website, or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 06/23/2014
Last Revised: 01/21/2016