Radiation therapy for bladder cancer

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Radiation therapy for bladder cancer

Treatment Overview

Radiation therapy uses high-dose X-rays or other types of radiation to destroy bladder cancer cells. It may be used alone, before surgery to shrink the cancer, or after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells. Radiation therapy may also be used if a person with bladder cancer cannot have surgery.

External beam radiation comes from a machine outside the body. The machine aims radiation at the cancer area. Most people who receive external beam radiation therapy for bladder cancer are treated 5 days a week for 6 to 7 weeks as an outpatient.

Internal (interstitial) radiation therapy (brachytherapy) uses radioactive material contained in tiny tubes, wires, or beads. These are surgically placed in or near the tumour.

What To Expect After Treatment

Radiation therapy for bladder cancer often causes fatigue. You may also have problems with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or urinary discomfort. Home treatment and medicine may help relieve these side effects.

Both men and women may have sexual problems following radiation therapy for bladder cancer. Women may have vaginal dryness, and men may have erection problems.

Why It Is Done

Radiation therapy destroys cancer cells. It may be used with surgery to prevent bladder cancer from coming back (recurring). It is also a treatment choice if surgery is not recommended for another medical reason. Radiation can also be used to treat symptoms such as pain in advanced bladder cancer.

How Well It Works

Radiation therapy helps prevent recurrence of bladder cancer. It is more effective when it is used in combination with chemotherapy than when it is used alone.1


Radiation therapy may cause a decrease in your white blood cells (leukopenia), which increases your risk of developing an infection. Your doctor will monitor your blood counts regularly and may change your treatment schedule until your white blood cell count returns to normal. You may also have side effects from radiation, such as:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Pain or discomfort when urinating.
  • Bladder inflammation and scarring (radiation cystitis).

Home treatment and medicine may help relieve these side effects.

What To Think About

Radiation therapy can cause scar tissue in the treated area. If cancer progresses after radiation therapy, the scar tissue can make surgery more complicated.1

External radiation may darken your skin colour, and the change may be permanent. You may also lose your hair in the treated area, but usually it grows back.

Complete the special treatment information form (PDF) (What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this treatment.



  1. Raghavan D (2003). Bladder, renal, and testicular cancer. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., Scientific American Medicine, section 12, chap. 14. New York: WebMD.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christopher G. Wood, MD, FACS - Urology, Oncology
Last Revised July 5, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.