Radiation Therapy and Incontinence:
What You Need to Know

Radiation therapy to the pelvic area can lead to bladder or bowel irritation, and cause or worsen incontinence.
Read on to find out more.

Radiation Therapy and Incontinence:
What You Need to Know

Radiation therapy to the pelvic area can lead to bladder or bowel irritation, and cause or worsen incontinence. Read on to find out more.

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, is a common cancer treatment that uses high-strength X-ray (or other) beams to damage and kill cancerous cells to prevent them from multiplying and spreading [1].

This type of treatment can be used on different areas of the body depending on the area the cancer is located, and you won’t see or feel the radiation during treatment.

As with any treatment, though, it’s not without side effects - but did you know that one of the most common side effects following pelvic radiotherapy is incontinence [2]?

In fact, almost 40% of men have bladder control issues within 6 months of radiation therapy treatment for prostate cancer [3], while a 2008 U.S study found over 80% of women experienced incontinence following treatment for endometrial cancer [4].

While urinary incontinence is a more common side effect of the treatment, it isn’t unheard of to experience faecal or mixed incontinence as a side effect, too.

Read on below to find out how pelvic radiotherapy can cause incontinence, as well as our suggestions for maintaining your quality of life while experiencing it.

How does pelvic radiotherapy cause incontinence?

While radiotherapy can be localised to the region of the cancer, it doesn’t target specific types of cells within the area - so while it destroys the cancerous cells, it can also damage the ‘normal’ surrounding cells of nerves, muscles and organs [5].

Because of this, it’s very common for pelvic radiotherapy to irritate/weaken the bladder and urethra, which can result in different types of urinary incontinence [5].

While urinary incontinence following radiation is often associated with prostate cancer, it can also occur following treatment for cancers in other areas, such as the bladder, cervix, lung, spine, vagina, urethra, and rectum [6].

Incontinence might only be experienced temporarily and resolve after treatment, however it can also appear as a ‘late effect’ (happening months or even years after the therapy is finished) [1,7].

Similar to the effects on the bladder, radiation therapy in the pelvic region (ie for bowel cancer), can weaken and irritate the anus, which can lead to faecal incontinence or mixed incontinence in some cases [7,8]. It’s also common to experience loose stool or diarrhoea following radiation therapy, which can make it harder to ‘hold on’ when you need to go [8,9].

An analysis of patients undergoing radiation therapy has shown that damage to ‘normal’ cells in the treatment area often leads to chronic gastrointestinal problems [10], with one in five patients undergoing pelvic radiotherapy reporting experiencing faecal incontinence [11].

How to manage incontinence as a result of radiotherapy?

If you’re experiencing incontinence as a side effect of radiotherapy, it’s important as a first step to discuss it with your treatment team who can provide you with recommendations and suggestions that are unique to your individual needs.

As well as talking to your specialists, there are some things you can do that might help to manage your incontinence, including:

    • Limiting intake of ceertain food and drinks that can irritate the bladder or have a diuretic effect, such as caffeine and alcohol
    • Have regular bathroom breaks and consider trying bladder training
    • Perform pelvic floor exercises regularly
    • Invest in quality incontinence products, such as those in our wide range of products.

      ConfidenceClub's Dailee range are premium European-made continence aids that you can count on to provide confidence when it counts. They're dermatologically tested, fitted with patented Magical Tubes absorption technology and active odour locking material to neutralise any odours, so you can stay feeling dry and fresh for up to 12 hours!

      If you need any help in finding the right product for your needs, you can take our quick and easy Help Me Choose quiz or get in touch with our friendly customer service specialists.

While incontinence may be a side effect of radiotherapy that impacts on quality of life, it's important to remember that you aren't alone when going through it, and in some cases it can resolve after treatment.

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