Bladder Cancer

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Treating Bladder Cancer TOPICS

Radiation therapy for bladder cancer

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells. The type of radiation most often used to treat bladder cancer, known as external beam radiation therapy, focuses radiation from a source outside of the body on the cancer.

Before your treatments start, the radiation team will take careful measurements to determine the correct angles for aiming the radiation beams and the proper dose of radiation. Radiation therapy is much like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is stronger. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment 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 therapy can be used:

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

Radiation therapy is often combined with chemotherapy to make the radiation more effective. The combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy after transurethral bladder surgery can sometimes destroy cancers that would otherwise need to be treated with cystectomy. This approach can be used to treat smaller tumors (about an inch or less in size) as long as there are no signs of kidney blockage. If the treatment doesn’t work or the cancer comes back, you will need a cystectomy.

Side effects of radiation therapy

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

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

These effects are usually temporary, although long-term problems sometimes occur. In some people radiation treatments can lead to incontinence (problems holding urine) later on. Radiation can also damage the lining of the bladder. This is known as radiation cystitis and can cause long-term problems such as blood in the urine or painful urination.

If you have side effects from radiation therapy, discuss them with your health care team. They can suggest ways to ease many of them. More information can be found in the Radiation section of our website, or in our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 02/26/2014
Last Revised: 02/25/2015