Bowel and bladder problems after cancer treatment

Many people experience changes in their bowel and or bladder control after cancer treatment.

Changes can include:

Bladder side-effects

  • Leaking of urine (incontinence) 

  • A feeling of wanting to go to the toilet and you cannot wait (urgency) 

  • A need to pass urine often (frequency) 

  • A burning sensation when you pass urine (cystitis)

Bowel side-effects

  • Loose stools, diarrhoea or constipation 

  • A need to open your bowel urgently 

  • Discomfort in the back passage 

  • Abdominal discomfort or pain 

Changes in bowel or bladder control can happen after treatment for many cancers such as bowel, bladder and prostate cancers, as well as rectal and ovarian cancers.

If you have had an operation that removes part of your bowel or bladder (for example for prostate or womb cancer) or have had pelvic radiotherapy, you may no longer have full control over your bowel or bladder.

As part of your surgery you may have had a stoma (colostomy bag) placed to collect urine or faeces. Even after a colostomy reversal you may have difficulty trying to regain control of your bowel function for some time. 

Bowel and bladder problems can be upsetting and embarrassing. You may also feel less confident as a result of such problems.  

You may find it more difficult to go back to normal activities such as socialising or returning to work. Most problems improve with time, but sometimes problems can get worse. Some changes to your bowel or bladder can be permanent.

Speak to your nurse specialist, GP or hospital doctor, as treatment is available to help long-lasting urinary or bowel problems.

What medical help is available for bladder and bowel problems?

Always tell your nurse specialist, GP or hospital doctor if you finding it hard to cope with bowel or bladder problems.

He or she may be able to recommend medication, surgery or other treatments and refer you to a specialist, if necessary. 

How can I cope better with bladder and bowel problems?

It can be hard to get used to the impact treatment has had on your bowel or bladder. There are things you can do yourself to help: 

Our section Urinary symptoms, catheters and prostate cancer treatment has detailed information on doing pelvic floor exercises to help urinary problems after prostate cancer. 

  • Changing your diet can help. Ask your doctor to refer you to a dietitian.  You can also read our booklet, Diet and Cancer

  • Use medications as instructed to help regularise bowel function. Remember that constipation can also make urinary incontinence worse.  

  • Try to remain active and exercise after cancer treatment, even if you do not feel like it. Remember to get a good balance between being active and taking time to rest. 

  • Exercise your pelvic floor muscles – this can help to improve control of the bladder and bowel.

Other help

  • To speak to a specialist cancer nurse in confidence call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre.  
  • Find out more details of health services for people who have all types of incontinence
  • C3Life has information to help people with bowel incontinence. (External link)
  • Our section Urinary symptoms, catheters and prostate cancer treatment has lots of information, including tips on dealing with urinary symptoms in your day-to-day life or while travelling.
Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015