Nausea is a frequent side effect of chemotherapy. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), more than half of people with cancer will experience nausea during their treatment. Fortunately, many effective medications are now available to help you reduce or avoid nausea.
Will chemotherapy leave me nauseous?
Nausea will not affect everyone to the same degree. Some chemotherapy drugs are more likely to cause nausea than others and some people may avoid nausea altogether.
Nausea can occur during or right after chemotherapy, or start a day or two after your treatment. It can last for only a few days, or for a week or longer.
The following factors may increase your likelihood of nausea:
- Your treatment. Some chemotherapy drugs are considered highly emetogenic, meaning they’re very likely to cause nausea. Other drugs have a moderate-to-low-risk of causing nausea.
- Your sex. Women more often suffer from nausea with chemotherapy than men. But women also generally respond well to medications that treat nausea.
- Your age. Young women are more likely to experience nausea with chemotherapy compared to older women.
- Your general susceptibility. Those who are prone to morning sickness or motion sickness may be more likely to experience nausea with treatment.
- Your prior experience. If you’ve experienced nausea with treatment before, you may find yourself nauseous even at the thought of treatment. This is known as anticipatory nausea.
What can my doctor prescribe for nausea?
Your doctor or oncologist will prescribe drugs to help with nausea called anti-emetics. The type of anti-emetics prescribed will depend on the chemotherapy regimen you receive. These drugs are often prescribed in combinations and come as oral capsules and tablets, injections, or patches.
It’s best to take anti-emetic drugs 45 minutes before meals so that they have time to work before you to eat. Once feelings of nausea or vomiting begin, they can be difficult to overcome so it’s best to try to prevent it. Nausea can also lead to anxiety or delays in later chemotherapy treatments.
According to guidelines from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, those who are receiving chemotherapy drugs most likely to cause nausea should receive a combination of three or four anti-emetic drugs. People receiving chemotherapy drugs less likely to cause nausea may do well with one or two anti-nausea medications.
Anti-emetic treatment will likely begin on the day you receive chemotherapy. You may continue to take anti-emetic drugs for a couple of days. They may be prescribed on a specific schedule or taken as needed. Your doctor may offer a patch to deliver anti-emetic drugs through your skin for multiple days.
Ask your healthcare team if you have any questions about the medications they’ve prescribed. If you find the drugs aren’t working for you, let your healthcare team know right away.
What can I do to reduce feelings of nausea?
It’s best to take steps to avoid nausea before it happens. Fortunately, the medications available help many people to avoid or reduce nausea. Other simple strategies can help too.
The National Cancer Institute offers these tips to help you feel better:
- Take your medicine. Check with your healthcare team if you have any questions about how to take your anti-nausea medications. It’s best to take your medication as prescribed, even if you feel well.
- Avoid certain foods. Choose foods that appeal to you. It’s generally best to avoid foods that are greasy, salty, sweet, or spicy.
- Eat and drink frequently and in smaller amounts. Drink small amounts of water throughout the day. Settle your stomach between meals with ginger tea and saltine crackers. Eat several small meals instead of three larger ones. Choose foods that are gentle on your stomach, like clear broth, baked chicken, toast, rice, bananas, and applesauce. Experiment with what works for you on treatment days. Some people prefer to eat before treatment, while others feel better when they don’t. Give yourself some time after chemotherapy treatments before eating or drinking.
Plan to go easy on yourself during your chemotherapy treatments. Be prepared by making sure you have all your medicines and plenty of foods and drinks that you like before your start chemotherapy, especially until you know how the treatments make you feel.
Can alternative treatments help?
The National Cancer Institute says that deep breathing and meditation may help some people, especially on treatment days.
Clinical trials are now underway or in planning stages that will consider the use of acupuncture, acupressure, yoga, mindfulness relaxation and other alternative approaches to managing nausea. A growing number of studies already suggest that acupuncture and acupressure may help with nausea during chemotherapy treatment. Studies in children suggest that hypnosis may help to relieve nausea that occurs in anticipation of chemotherapy treatment.
Ginger capsules may also help when taken along with anti-emetic drugs.
Marijuana is illegal in the United States, but some states allow it for medical purposes. Its use is controversial but some people find that the drug helps with nausea and stimulates appetite.
According to the American Cancer Society, the scientific evidence doesn’t support the use of inhaled marijuana for symptoms related to cancer. There are concerns about potential toxicity and other side effects. Marijuana research is difficult because of variation in the level of active ingredients, including cannabinoids.
When it comes to complementary and alternative therapies, ASCO guidelines say that there’s too little evidence from clinical trials to support a recommendation. Talk to your doctor before about any therapies you plan to pursue.