Cancer Care: Controlling Nausea and Vomiting

Man holding glass of water, preparing to take pill.

Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Side effects occur when treatment changes some normal cells as well as cancer cells. In this case, it affects the cells lining your stomach. And it affects the part of your brain that controls vomiting.

Nausea is feeling that you need to throw up. Vomiting is when you do throw up. This is when your body forces food that is in your stomach out through your mouth.

Nausea and vomiting are common. They can be caused by many things, such as:

  • Stomach virus

  • Food poisoning

  • Stomach pain

  • Blockages in the digestive system

  • Constipation

  • Infection

  • Anxiety and stress

Other common causes are:

  • Head injury

  • Infection in the brain or inside the ear

  • Migraines

  • Brain tumor

  • Brain bruise or injury

  • Motion sickness

  • Alcohol

  • Pain medicines such as morphine

  • Certain treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy

  • Poisonous things (toxins), such as plants or liquids that you swallow by accident

  • Advanced types of cancer

  • Movement problems

  • Extra pressure in the fluid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord

Sometimes belly pain and cramps happen along with nausea and vomiting. The symptoms can be mild and go away on their own. Other times they can be severe. They may need to be treated.

Nausea and vomiting with cancer

Nausea and vomiting can happen before, during, or after cancer treatments. But it can be controlled. Don’t think it is a normal part of cancer and cancer treatment. If not treated, it can become serious. It can change the fluid and chemical balance in your body. It could even keep you from getting cancer treatment. Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • You have nausea or vomiting that lasts 24 hours or more.

  • You can’t take your antiemetics or they are not working. These medicines help ease or stop nausea or vomiting.

  • You have trouble keeping fluids down.

  • You become dizzy, lightheaded, or confused.

  • You have very dark urine or you stop urinating.

Talk with your healthcare provider about your treatment and the best way to handle any nausea and vomiting. Be sure you know how and when to use antiemetics. Also know when to call your healthcare provider.

Medicines can help

Nausea or vomiting can often be treated with medicines called antiemetics. You may take these before or after your cancer treatment. You may have to try different kinds or combinations of these medicines to feel better. But in most cases, nausea and vomiting can be eased.

Eating tips

  • If you have medicines to control nausea, take them before meals as directed.

  • Don't eat fatty or greasy foods if you have nausea.

  • Eat small meals throughout the day.

  • Ask someone to sit with you while you eat. This can help to keep you from thinking about nausea.

  • Eat foods at room temperature or colder to limit strong smells.

  • Eat dry foods, such as toast, crackers, or pretzels. Also eat cool, light foods, such as applesauce. Bland foods, such as oatmeal or skinned chicken, are good, too.

  • Try to keep taking in clear fluids in small sips, or as ice chips, gelatin, or ice pops.

Other ways to feel better

  • Get a little fresh air. Take a short walk.

  • Talk to a friend, listen to music, or watch TV.

  • Take a few deep, slow breaths.

  • Eat by candlelight or in surroundings that you find relaxing.

  • Use a method to help you relax, such as guided imagery. Imagine yourself in a beautiful, restful scene. Or daydream about the place you’d most like to be.