Coping with bowel or bladder changes

Knowing how to cope with the day-to-day issues caused by bladder and bowel changes can help you to feel more confident and in control. Planning ahead and making some lifestyle changes can mean problems become easier to manage. Try to:

  • Protect your skin by keeping it clean and dry. Use baby wipes, absorbent pads and barrier creams.
  • Plan ahead when going out. Find out where the toilets are and take a bag of clothes and other supplies with you.
  • Wear products that help with leakage or soiling. This may make you feel more confident, and help if you have an accident.

Keeping to a healthy diet and being physically active can help you maintain a healthy weight, which reduces stress on the pelvic floor muscles. Stress can sometimes make symptoms worse but finding ways to mange stress can help. 

It may be embarrassing to talk about bladder and bowel problems, but many people find talking to specialist nurses, continence advisors or joining a support group can help.

How to cope with bladder and bowel changes

The day-to-day issues caused by bladder and bowel changes are often similar.

If you’re having problems, you may feel worried about going out and social occasions. But there are lots of practical things you can do and lifestyle changes you can make. These will help you feel more confident and in control.

Protect your skin

If you have problems with leaking (incontinence) from your bladder or bowel, it can make the skin in that area sore.

You can protect your skin by keeping it clean and dry. There are many products available. Your continence adviser can give you more information.

Here are some suggestions to help keep your skin clean and dry:

  • unperfumed baby wipes are more gentle on your skin than toilet paper
  • absorbent pads and barrier creams (such as Cavilon®) can help protect your skin
  • cotton underwear allows your skin to breathe more than other materials.

Going out

If you have problems with bowel or bladder control, you may feel worried about going out, especially to somewhere new. Planning ahead so that you are prepared can help you feel more confident.

Access to toilets

If you’re going somewhere you’re not familiar with, it’s a good idea to find out where the toilets are in advance. Many towns and counties have lists or maps of the public toilets in their area. These are often on local authority websites. There are too many of these websites to list here, but you’ll be able to find them on the internet. Try typing “public toilets” and the name of the place you’re visiting into a search engine.

If you need to go to the toilet more often, or feel that you can’t wait when you do want to go, you can get a card to show to staff in shops, pubs and other places. The card allows you to use their toilets without them asking awkward and embarrassing questions.

Macmillan produces this toilet card, which you can order from We hope this card helps you get urgent access to a toilet, but we cannot guarantee that it will work everywhere.

You can also use disabled toilets. These often have more privacy. They have a wash basin and more space if you need to change. The National Key Scheme for Toilets offers access to about 9,000 locked public toilets across the UK. You can buy a key from Disability Rights UK. It can also send you details of where the toilets are.

Take a bag with supplies

Pack a bag of the things you may need when you go out. This will help you feel more confident. You may want to include:

  • wet wipes or baby wipes
  • barrier cream such as Cavilon® or Sudocrem®
  • pads and pants
  • a change of clothes
  • a sealable bag
  • loperamide (if you have problems with diarrhoea)
  • your Just Can’t Wait or Macmillan toilet card.

Specialist products for leakage or soiling

If you have problems with leakage or soiling (incontinence), there are different products you can wear. These help you feel more confident and protect your clothes if you have any leakage. A continence adviser can help you choose products that suit your needs.

You can buy pads for mild to moderate incontinence in most supermarkets and pharmacies and online. If these aren’t absorbent enough, you can get bigger pads from your continence adviser. They can also explain what’s available to you on the NHS. This can vary from region to region.

Products for bladder incontinence

Pads and pull-ups have a layer that draws urine away from the surface and absorbs it, so your skin stays dry. There are different ones available. You can wear some inside your underwear and others as a replacement for underwear. You can also buy pads to cover your bed.

For men

Having a urine bottle near your bed may help you get a better night’s sleep. You won’t have to walk to the toilet every time you need to go. If you are worried about getting to the toilet in time during the day, keep the bottle nearby. You may want to keep one in your car.

If you don’t want to use pads, you may prefer to wear a sheath and leg bag. The sheath fits over your penis (like a condom), and urine is held in a bag that you strap to your leg. You can buy underwear with a built-in pocket to hold the bag.

Products for bowel incontinence

A continence adviser can help you choose products that suit your needs.

There are different types of pad you can wear during the day in case of accidents. Pads and pants with charcoal linings help reduce smell from leakage or wind. Stoma bags with filters also help reduce smell. There are also various types of pad you can use to cover your bed at night.

Anal plugs are made from soft foam and stop bowel leakage for up to 12 hours. There’s a cord attached to the plug, which allows you to remove it when you’re ready. Some people find anal plugs uncomfortable to begin with, but most people get used to them after using them a few times. Your continence adviser can tell you more about anal plugs.

Keep to a healthy weight

Being overweight puts pressure on your pelvic floor muscles. It's important to keep to a healthy weight if you have stress incontinence or problems with bowel control. Your GP can advise you about what the right weight is for your height.

Keep physically active

Keeping active will help you manage your weight and avoid getting constipated. This is important to help look after your pelvic floor muscles. Exercise also encourages you to go to the toilet more regularly. And it helps you feel better and can reduce stress.

If you have stress incontinence, it’s best to avoid anything that involves running or jumping. Walking or swimming are lower-impact and are less likely to be a problem. When your symptoms are under control, you may want to gradually introduce other types of exercise.

Avoid constipation

This is important to help look after your pelvic floor muscles.

Our food guide list foods that help reduce constipation. You can also look at our diagram for the correct toilet sitting position.

Make sure you drink plenty of fluids and keep physically active.

Managing stress

The way you feel can affect both your bladder and your bowel. Anxiety and stressful situations can make your symptoms worse and may make accidents more likely.

Learning to relax may help improve some of your symptoms. Some continence clinics and support groups teach stress management. Your doctor or specialist nurse can tell you about relaxation classes in your area.

Relaxation CDs are available from bookshops and some health shops. You can also download relaxation podcasts from the internet.

Some people find that complementary therapies help them feel less stressed. For details of what’s available in your area, call our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

Getting support

Bladder or bowel problems can be embarrassing and difficult to talk about. This can make you feel isolated. Health professionals can give you lots of support and advice if you let them know about any problems you’re having. They are used to dealing with these issues and can refer you to a counsellor or specialist if you need more help.

Support groups, online community sites and specialist organisations can also provide invaluable support. They’re a good way of meeting people who’ve been through similar difficulties. You can share experiences and solutions with each other. Partners, family members and close friends can also help you cope with feelings.

Back to Late effects of pelvic radiotherapy

About late effects

Some people may have long term or late effects of pelvic radiotherapy. These can usually be treated or managed successfully.

Bladder changes

Pelvic radiotherapy can damage the bladder and the muscles around it. This can change how the bladder functions.

Bowel changes

Late bowel effects of pelvic radiotherapy are usually managed or treated successfully. Talk to your doctor if you notice any symptoms.

Late effects and sex life

Pelvic radiotherapy can have some late effects on your sex life. Your doctor or nurse can give you advice on how to manage these.