Feeling sick

People with advanced cancer often have problems with feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting). These can be caused by treatment with chemotherapy or radiation therapy, cancer growth, blockage of the bowel or the location of the cancer.

Nausea can usually be managed with medicines. You may need to try different types until you find one that works for you.

Many people talk about anticipatory nausea, the response your body learns when you know it is chemotherapy time again. Even if you are no longer having chemotherapy, you may still feel a surge of nausea if you’re going past the place where you were treated.

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Blockage in the bowel

Sometimes cancer in the abdominal area can cause the bowel to become blocked. This is called bowel obstruction. Because waste matter (faeces) cannot pass through the bowel easily, symptoms may include feeling sick or vomiting.

To relieve these symptoms, you may have a small tube (stent) put in to keep the bowel open. The stent is inserted through the rectum using a flexible tube called an endoscope.

High levels of calcium in the blood

Feeling nauseous may be a symptom of high levels of calcium in your blood (hypercalcaemia). If the cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells make the bone break down and release calcium into the blood, causing you to feel tired and drowsy.

Hypercalcaemia is more common in some types of advanced cancer. You may be given drugs to lower high calcium levels. These are called bisphosphonates, and are usually given through a drip into a vein.

Helpful tips for dealing with nausea

  • Eat small meals or snacks 5–6 times during the day. Going without food for long periods can make nausea
  • Choose cold foods or foods at room temperature, such as sandwiches, salads, stewed fruit or jelly.
  • Have food or drink with ginger, e.g. ginger ale, ginger tea or ginger biscuits.
  • Take anti-nausea medicines as prescribed. Let the doctor know if the medicines don’t seem to be working.
  • Avoid fried, greasy or spicy foods or those that have strong smells.
  • Use stress reduction techniques, such as meditation.

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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