Nausea and vomiting

How do nausea and vomiting affect cancer patients?

Nausea and vomiting affect patients across all cancer types, particularly those who undergo targeted radiation or chemotherapy. They remain among the most dreaded side effects of treatment. Nausea is characterized by an uneasy sensation that comes in waves in the back of the throat and/or stomach. It is often, but not always, accompanied by vomiting. Dry heaves, a reflexive act caused by contracted stomach muscles and movement of the esophagus, may occur after or in addition to vomiting.

Nausea may develop when chemotherapy drugs damage the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. Certain other triggers, including sights, smells, motion, taste, anxiety or pain, may also stimulate nausea and/or vomiting. Nausea and vomiting may result in other symptoms, such as an escalated heart rate, excess saliva or difficulty swallowing. When nausea and vomiting is not prevented or controlled, it may lead to more serious health complications, including:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Malnutrition
  • Dehydration
  • Chemical changes in the body
  • A damaged esophagus
  • Reopening of surgical incisions or wounds
  • Broken bones

Patients undergoing cancer treatment are often troubled more by nausea and stomach upset than by vomiting. Despite medical advances designed to alleviate bouts of nausea and vomiting, both are debilitating and serious side effects of cancer treatment that deserve the attention of the patient’s care team.

How likely are cancer patients to experience nausea and vomiting?

Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting occurs in up to 80 percent of patients, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Risk factors that may elevate patients’ chances of developing nausea and vomiting include the drug used, its dosage, the treatment schedule and how certain chemotherapy drugs are combined. Some patients also suffer delayed bouts of nausea and vomiting, which may develop 24 hours after treatment, according to the NCI. 

How may integrative care help?

Several supportive care cancer therapies may help alleviate nausea and vomiting, helping to prevent delays or interruptions in treatment such as:

Nutritional support

Mitigating gastrointestinal side effects may help prevent malnutrition and improve quality of life. Dietitians may offer tips for symptom management while helping patients meet their nutrient and hydration needs. Many patients who experience nausea and vomiting after treatment have little to no interest in food and may avoid eating or drinking for fear of vomiting. If prolonged, this avoidance may lead to malnutrition and dehydration, which can intensify nausea. An altered sense of taste and smell can also contribute to nausea, compounding a loss in appetite. Dietitians may recommend that patients have small, frequent, bland meals or snacks throughout the day, rather than skipping meals entirely. Although it may seem contrary to the expectations of those suffering with nausea, eating every two hours may help patients feel better, alleviate their nausea and boost energy levels. Cold foods may be better tolerated that hot foods, and modifying the taste and consistency of certain foods may make them more appealing. Dietitians may also recommend ginger and peppermint products, which may act as natural anti-nausea agents.

Learn more about nutritional support