How to Handle Urinary Incontinence After Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 22, 2023
4 min read

If you have cancer, you may have trouble controlling your bladder, a condition called urinary incontinence. The problem can happen because of a tumor near your bladder or spine, or because of certain cancer treatments, like surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

Your health care team can help you treat the condition with medications and physical therapy while you’re recovering from your cancer treatment. But there are also things you can do on your own to manage your incontinence and get control of your bladder.

Limit certain food and drinks: Start by cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, because they tend to make your body produce more urine. Carbonated drinks can also be a problem, as can citrus fruits, tea, sugar, chocolate, dairy products, and vinegar. Each person is different, so pay attention to how different foods affect your symptoms.


Drink enough, but not too much: The “Goldilocks rule” applies here: Too much liquid can make you have to pee too much, but if you don’t get enough, you could get an infection or other problems. The key to making sure you get enough fluid per day: Look for urine that’s clear to light yellow. To avoid problems overnight, limit how much you drink about 2 hours before bed.



Schedule your toilet breaks: It can help to go to the bathroom at regular intervals each day. A good goal is to go at least every 2 to 4 hours. Set an alarm to remind you if you tend to forget.

It also can help to delay your breaks if you find you go too often. Your doctor might call this “bladder training.” Start by trying to wait 10 minutes after you get the urge to pee. Your goal should be to stretch time between trips to 2.5 to 3.5 hours.


Consider wearing pads: Your local pharmacy has special pads or underwear, some of which you simply throw away after use. In many cases, no one can tell you’re wearing them when you’re dressed, and they typically stop urine from leaking onto your clothes. Bed pads or mattress covers can help absorb urine if you regularly pee in your sleep.


Pee before bed: A trip to the toilet right before you turn in will help prevent unnecessary accidents, keep sleep disruption to a minimum, and might even help you sleep through the night.


Try pelvic floor exercises: Sometimes called Kegel exercises, these help strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that help control your bladder. You can find these muscles if you try to stop the flow of urine when you pee. But once you know the feeling, it’s better to practice when you’re not in the middle of urinating. Hold it just for a few seconds at first and build up to longer time spans. A physical therapist may be able to help you with these exercises.


Pee before exercise: This could be any activity that gets you moving and breathing harder. Think of weightlifting, jogging, or even sex. Go beforehand to help prevent leaks.


Quit smoking: Cigarette smoking often causes a lasting cough, which can damage the muscles of the pelvic floor and keep you from controlling your bladder. In addition, the nicotine in cigarettes and other tobacco can irritate your bladder and lead to incontinence. The CDC, the American Lung Association, and others have online resources to help you quit.


Keep a healthy body weight: Extra pounds can add to problems with incontinence. Simple changes in diet and exercise habits can help you keep your weight where it needs to be. Talk to your doctor about whether you are at a healthy weight and to get guidance on how to slim down if you need to.