One of the most common side effects of chemotherapy is nausea. For many people, nausea is the first side effect they experience, as early as a few days after the first dose of chemotherapy. It may be manageable for some, but for others it may be a bigger challenge.
A few aspects of your treatment plan may affect your risk of experiencing nausea. For example, the frequency of treatment, dosing, and how the medication is given — intravenously or by mouth — may all make a difference. The specific combination of medications used for chemotherapy can also have an effect.
There are several ways to manage the nausea associated with chemotherapy, from medication to lifestyle changes. Here are four tips that may help.
Ask your doctor about anti-nausea medication
If you’re receiving chemotherapy, your doctor will most likely recommend that you take medications to control nausea. These medications can be given in pill, intravenous, or suppository form.
Chemotherapy treatments are categorized by how likely they are to cause nausea. Some have a high risk of nausea, while others have a low or minimal risk. The type of anti-nausea medication your doctor prescribes will depend on the chemotherapy regimen you’re following.
Anti-nausea medications are also called anti-emetics. They’re often given prior to chemotherapy to prevent nausea. It’s generally easier to manage nausea by preventing it before it starts.
If nausea occurs, it may be followed by vomiting. This can make it difficult to keep down medication that’s taken by mouth. In that case, intravenous medications or medication suppositories may be an option.
If you’re experiencing nausea, talk to your cancer care team. Many different medications can be used to prevent or treat nausea. Your doctor may prescribe an anti-nausea medication or make a change to your treatment plan.
Acupuncture is used as a complementary or alternative therapy. The American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO) notes that acupuncture appears to be a safe supplemental treatment that may help manage some side effects, including nausea.
During an acupuncture session, a trained professional inserts thin acupuncture needles into certain points on the body.
Several studies have examined the use of acupuncture to treat chemotherapy-related nausea. One study found that the use of acupuncture in combination with a heat therapy called moxibustion reduced nausea in people being treated with a specific chemotherapy drug.
In another small study, people receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatments who used acupuncture had milder nausea and took fewer anti-emetics than a control group that used a fake form of acupuncture.
ASCO notes that people with cancer who have low white blood cell counts should not try acupuncture because they have a higher risk of infection. It’s important to talk to your cancer care team before trying any complementary therapy, including acupuncture.
Eat small, frequent meals
Many people eat three large meals a day. But the Mayo Clinic suggests eating smaller meals intermittently to decrease nausea from chemotherapy.
However, skipping meals is not recommended. If you’re feeling well, it’s generally fine to eat prior to chemotherapy, unless your doctor tells you otherwise. It may actually help prevent nausea if you eat a light meal within the few hours before your chemotherapy treatment.
It’s best to avoid foods that may worsen nausea or vomiting, such as fried, greasy, fatty, or sweet foods. Avoid any food with an odor that makes you feel nauseated.
Nausea and vomiting increase the risk of dehydration. In addition to eating well, do your best to stay hydrated by drinking water, sports drinks, fruit juice, and herbal teas. Some people find flat ginger ale helpful for nausea. Avoid alcohol and beverages high in caffeine, such as coffee.
Practice relaxation techniques
Certain relaxation techniques may be helpful for people experiencing chemotherapy-related nausea, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
These techniques are non-invasive and can often be done on your own. They may work by helping you feel more relaxed and in control, or by distracting you.
The ACS notes these techniques have been used to reduce or prevent nausea:
- progressive muscle relaxation, a technique that teaches you to tense and relax different muscle groups
- biofeedback, an approach that allows you to influence certain physical responses in your body
- guided imagery, a type of meditation
- music therapy, a complementary therapy led by trained professionals
Other techniques that may help manage behaviors and anxiety related to nausea include self-hypnosis and desensitization therapy.
Many cancer centers offer access to services where you can learn these approaches. Looking for local courses and independent practitioners is another option. Ask you cancer care team if they have recommendations.
Nausea from chemotherapy can be prevented and treated. Most likely, your doctor will recommend prescription medication as a starting point.
Complementary approaches, such as acupuncture, diet modification, and relaxation techniques, are also worth considering. Speak with your cancer care team to see what options are best for you.