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Published on November 01, 2018

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Cancer treatment side effects and the bladder

Some cancer treatments, such as those listed below, may cause urinary and bladder problems:

  • Radiation therapy to the pelvis (including reproductive organs, the bladder, colon and rectum) can irritate the bladder and urinary tract. These problems often start several weeks after radiation therapy begins and go away several weeks after treatment has been completed.
  • Some types of chemotherapy and biological therapy can also affect or damage cells in the bladder and kidneys.
  • Surgery to remove the prostate (prostatectomy), uterus, tissue on the sides of the uterus, cervix, and the top part of the vagina (radical hysterectomy) can also cause urinary problems. These types of surgery may increase the risk of a urinary tract infection, too.

Symptoms of a urinary problem

Talk with your doctor or nurse to learn what symptoms you may experience and when you may need to seek medical help. Some urinary or bladder changes may be normal, such as changes to the color or smell of your urine caused by some types of chemotherapy. Your health care team will determine what is causing your symptoms and what steps to take to feel better. Side effects may include:

Irritation of the bladder lining (radiation cystitis):

  • pain or a burning feeling when you urinate
  • blood in your urine
  • trouble starting to urinate
  • trouble emptying your bladder completely
  • feeling that you need to urinate urgently or frequently
  • leaking a little urine when you sneeze or cough
  • bladder spasms, cramps or discomfort in the pelvic area

Urinary tract infection (UTI):

  • pain or a burning feeling when you urinate
  • urine that is cloudy or red
  • a fever of 100.5 degrees or higher, chills and fatigue
  • pain in your back or abdomen
  • difficulty urinating or not being able to urinate

In people being treated for cancer, a UTI can turn into a serious condition that needs immediate medical care. Antibiotics will be prescribed if you have a bacterial infection.

Symptoms that may occur after surgery:

  • Incontinence (leaking urine)
  • trouble emptying your bladder completely

Ways to prevent or manage

Here are some steps you may be advised to take to feel better and to prevent problems:

  • Drink plenty of liquids. Most people need to drink at least eight cups of fluid each day. You'll want to stay away from things that can make bladder problems worse. These include caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods and tobacco products.
  • Prevent urinary tract infections. Your doctor or nurse will talk with you about ways to lower your chances of getting a urinary tract infection. These may include going to the bathroom often, wearing cotton underwear and loose fitting pants, learning about safe and sanitary practices for catheterization, taking showers instead of baths, and checking with your nurse before using products such as creams or lotions near your genital area.

Your cancer care team is available to answer any questions you may have about treatment side effects. If you have questions or concerns, never hesitate to reach out to your care team: (608) 775-2385.

*Article adapted from the National Cancer Institute.

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