Feeling sick (nausea)

Feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting) are side effects that most people associate with treatment for cancer.

This page gives tips and information on managing the symptoms during and after cancer treatment.

Feeling sick (nausea)

Feeling sick is an unpleasant feeling, and a symptom many people worry about experiencing whilst on cancer treatment. It doesn’t affect everyone. There may be different levels, ranging from feeling sick to actually vomiting.  

Certain chemotherapy drugs are known to cause nausea. Doctors prescribe anti-sickness medication to help prevent and ease the level of sickness you may experience. Similarly, radiotherapy, particularly when directed at the abdomen/stomach or brain, can trigger nausea in a similar way.

Other treatments, including hormone therapy, bisphosphonates, biological therapies and pain relief medications can cause mild nausea, which generally settles over time or can be managed.

Managing nausea

There are a number of ways to manage nausea. If the chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment is known to cause nausea or vomiting, anti-sickness medication is often given during and after treatment to help prevent it. There are a range of anti-sickness (anti-emetics) medicines available.

Things to do if you are suffering with nausea and vomiting:

  • Let your healthcare team know if you are feeling or being sick so they can help you.  They may adjust or change your medication. They'll also look out for other possible causes of your symptoms.
  • It helps to have plenty of fluids during treatment.
  • Take your anti-sickness medication as prescribed and tell your healthcare team if it is not working so you can try something different.
  • Take anti-sickness medication 30 minutes before you plan to eat.
  • Eat small light meals throughout the day especially around chemotherapy treatments.
  • Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly to aid digestion.
  • Eat cool bland comfort foods at least until you see how you will feel eating.
  • Eat toast, crackers and cereal to help settle your stomach.
  • Drink liquids after meals (not with meals) to avoid feeling full.
  • Try relaxation techniques and slow deep breathing when you feel sick.
  • Eat cold meals or food from the freezer that only needs heating up if the smell of cooking makes you feel sick.
  • If possible let someone else do the cooking.
  • Take foods containing ginger e.g. ginger tea or ginger biscuits.
  • Sip fizzy drinks.
  • Sip peppermint tea or chew mint.
  • Ask your healthcare team about using sea-bands (a travel sickness aid).

Things to avoid if you are suffering with nausea and vomiting:

  • Waiting until you feel sick before trying to take anti-sickness medication.
  • Smoky places or places with other strong smells.
  • Strong perfumes or aftershave.
  • Eating your favourite foods when you feel sick.
  • Eating or preparing food when you are feeling sick.
  • Drinking at the same time as eating.
  • Fried, sweet and/or spicy foods.
  • Orange or grapefruit juice which may irritate your stomach.

You may be feeling isolated and low in mood - nausea is a physical reminder of everything that is going on and can be challenging to manage.

You can drop into any Maggie’s centre to talk to our professional support staff about the symptoms you are experiencing and get support and advice. 

Relaxation exercises can help alleviate nausea, and you’ll have a chance to meet people who understand how you feel.

When to seek medical advice

There are some occasions when it is important to seek medical advice - this may be through your hospital doctors, oncology team, specialist nurse or GP. 

  • If you find that you’re vomiting and unable to keep down prescribed medications, or fluids, then this means you may not be receiving the treatment you need - and dehydration can be a problem. 
  • Violent vomiting, or being sick for more than one or two days or if your nausea and vomiting is a new symptom.
  • You have a temperature and/or feeling generally unwell.

You can also help by keeping a note of your symptoms and anything that makes them better or worse,  ready for discussion at your hospital/GP/specialist nurse.

Last review: Jan 2022 | Next review: Sep 2023

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