Radiation Therapy

How is radiation therapy used to treat bladder cancer?

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells.1-3 For treating patients with bladder cancer, external beam radiation therapy is typically used. This type of treatment focuses radiation onto the body from a machine that is outside of the body.

Radiation therapy for bladder cancer is generally used in combination with another treatment or treatments. For example, it can be used as part of treatment for patients with early-stage bladder cancer who have had surgery such as transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT), in which the surgeon has removed tumors from the bladder lining but has not removed the patient’s entire bladder. Radiation therapy can help to destroy cancer cells remaining in the bladder after the tumor is removed. It can also be used to treat patients with early-stage bladder cancer who are not able to have surgery.

Radiation therapy can also be used to treat patients with advanced bladder cancer that has spread beyond the bladder to nearby organs or to distant parts of the body. For these patients, radiation therapy may be used as part of the first treatment of the tumor(s) or it can be used to help prevent and/or treat symptoms that the tumors can cause. It can also be used to treat bladder cancer that has spread to one other area, such as a bone.

Chemoradiation is radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy treatment, which can make combined treatment more effective. This is commonly used to treat patients with bladder cancer. If a patient with bladder cancer cannot be treated with chemotherapy, then radiation therapy may be used without chemotherapy.

What happens during radiation therapy?

Patients receive radiation therapy at a hospital or other specialized healthcare setting.1 Radiation oncologists are healthcare providers who specialize in treating patients with radiation therapy.

Before the first radiation therapy session, the radiation oncologist and team use imaging tests (such as CAT or MRI scans) and radiation technology to carefully create the patient’s treatment plan during a process called simulation. Information in the treatment plan includes where the radiation will be delivered to the patient’s body, how much radiation energy will be used, and how many radiation therapy sessions will be needed.

Patients typically do not feel any pain during radiation treatment sessions. Most patients have radiation therapy sessions that last for a few minutes per day (however, setup for the radiation treatment may take some time), five days a week. The number of weeks of treatment required depends on the patient’s radiation treatment plan.

Can radiation therapy cause side effects?

While the radiation treatment sessions are generally not painful, some patients experience side effects from radiation therapy.1,2 These may include:

  • Symptoms such as redness or peeling on the skin where radiation is being delivered
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Symptoms related to urination, such as burning during urination, increased frequency, or blood in the urine
  • Fatigue

In most patients, the symptoms tend to go away after the radiation treatment is completed. However, some patients experience side effects that last for a longer time. For example, radiation can damage the lining of the bladder (radiation cystitis), which can cause urinary symptoms.

Your radiation oncologist and team will talk with you about what kinds of side effects that you might experience before, during, and after radiation treatment and about ways to help reduce some of those symptoms.

Patients receiving radiation therapy should talk to their doctor about any other medications (prescription and over-the-counter), herbal remedies, and any supplements they are taking, as well as any other health conditions.

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Written by Anna Nicholson | Last review date: September 2021.