Cancer Nausea – Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments


Nausea is a common side effect of some cancers and cancer treatments. Nausea is feeling sick to your stomach, or feeling like you might want to throw up. This symptom can be mild or severe, and even lead to vomiting. Regardless of the severity, nausea can be very uncomfortable and can affect your health. 

What can cause nausea with cancer

  • Certain Cancers (brain, liver, stomach, pancreas, colon, appendix, ovaries)
  • Cancer Treatments (chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy)
  • Certain medications used to help with cancer treatment side effects. The most common of these are pain medications. 
  • Anxiety

Who is at risk for cancer nausea

Unfortunately, there are certain personal factors that can make you more likely to have cancer nausea. You may be more vulnerable if you have one or more of these:

  • Female
  • History of motion sickness
  • Morning sickness during pregnancy
  • Prone to nausea and vomiting when sick
  • Have a high level of anxiety

What can happen when you get sick to your stomach

The major concern for nausea is decreased nutrition. This is because if you are feeling nauseous, your appetite might be low, or you choose not to eat anything at all in fear of worsening your symptoms or throwing up.  Failing to seek treatment for nausea and vomiting can lead to serious health complications. Malnutrition is detrimental to cancer care, and health in general. It can cause weakness, weight loss, inability to fight infections, and inability to finish cancer treatments. Uncontrolled vomiting can lead to dehydration and pain. Read more about malnutrition from our blog post here.

How to manage your symptoms with medications

There is no standard regimen to treat cancer nausea and chemotherapy-induced nausea. However, there are many different kinds of medications available that can help manage your symptoms:

  • Drugs that can block the vomiting center in the brain (Prochlorperazine). 
  • Drugs that can speed up the emptying of your stomach (Metoclopramide, Domperidone)
  • Drugs that can block the receptors in the gut (Ondansetron). 
  • Drugs that are used for other symptoms, but can help reduce nausea and vomiting. Examples of these, and commonly prescribed, are anti-anxiety drugs (Lorazepam) and steroids (Dexamethasone). 

There are many medications not mentioned. Talk to your doctor which one is right for you. Keep in mind that some of these can be taken by mouth or injected through an IV access by a healthcare provider.

How to manage your symptoms with dietary modifications

Prevention is key to help with nausea. Your doctor may prescribe a medication to be taken 30 minutes to an hour before meals. However, there are ways to relieve nausea and vomiting without using medications:

  • Try eating small frequent snacks rather than large meals
  • Avoid high fat, greasy foods, especially before treatments
  • Avoid strong odors. Also pay attention to what smells trigger nausea for you
  • Do not lay flat for at least 2 hours after eating
  • Drink plenty of fluids, but avoid drinking liquids during meals
  • Always talk to your doctor first before trying any of alternative and complementary treatments
  • If you are vomiting, do not drink or eat for several hours to give your stomach time to heal. Start back on food slowly. Begin with small amounts of clear liquids like water or broths. Then advance to light, mild food like jello or toast. If you can eat that without vomiting, then you can try solid food.

Ask a dietitian for advice on the best food to eat during treatment and recovery. He or she can also recommend ways to help manage your symptoms that will best suit your lifestyle. Watch this video presentation by our registered dietitian Rachel Spencer for more information about nutritional help with nausea.

When to contact your healthcare provider

Nausea and vomiting can be caused by medical conditions unrelated to your cancer and treatments. So, it is important to contact your doctor if:

  • You are not getting relief despite medications and careful dietary  modifications
  • You are vomiting 4 or more times in a 24-hour period
  • You have abdominal pain before nausea and vomiting occurs
  • You are bothered by the side effects of your medications 

Treatments are individualized to your signs and symptoms and lifestyle. Do not let nausea ruin your road to recovery. Talk to your healthcare team today about what works best for you. Our experts at OncoPower can help you get started.

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