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Nausea and Vomiting — Common Physical Side Effects of Cancer Treatments

Nausea and vomiting can result from a variety of cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy to the abdomen, stomach, spine, or brain. You may even become nauseated from anxiety before you begin treatment. When chemotherapy is the cause of nausea and vomiting, it’s referred to as chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (CINV).

Regardless of the cause of nausea and vomiting, this is a much more serious concern than hair loss or some of the other potential side effects of cancer treatments. This is because nausea and vomiting can affect your ability to perform your daily activities and lead to nutritional deficits, thereby hindering your quality of life.

But even if you do experience nausea, vomiting, or CINV as a result of treatment, don’t despair. A number of highly effective medications can be used to prevent these side effects from occurring and to sustain the response even while treatment is exerting its most taxing effects on your body.

Fortunately, many medications can help manage nausea and vomiting; these are referred to as anti-nausea and antiemetic drugs, respectively. In addition, there are foods that you can eat to help maintain your nutritional status and hydration while avoiding aggravating your stomach. There are also foods you may want to avoid, such as high-fat foods, which take longer to leave your stomach and can worsen nausea as a result.

Here are some suggestions for managing nausea and vomiting:

  • Be sure your oncologist is aware that you’re nauseated and take any medications for nausea as prescribed. Don’t wait until you’re experiencing nausea to take medications that have been prescribed for it. Take these medications as prescribed to try to prevent nausea until you’re able to resume your normal diet. If you continue to experience nausea despite taking your anti-nausea medication, contact your oncologist.

  • Stay well hydrated. Even if you can’t tolerate much solid food, make sure you drink or even sip fluids throughout the day to prevent dehydration. Typically, clear liquids are better tolerated initially.

    Water is the fluid of choice. Also, try juices, fruit juice spritzers (juice with a little seltzer), herbal teas, broths, fruit sorbets, and frozen fruit bars. When you can tolerate clear liquids, try adding some bland foods based on your tolerance.

  • Eat small, frequent, bland meals. Try to avoid an empty stomach, which can make nausea worse. Start the day with some salty crackers or pretzels kept at your bedside table. Other foods that are generally well tolerated are fruit, mashed potatoes, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, dry toast, and rice. Cottage cheese, yogurt, kefir, tofu, eggs, and low-fat cheese may also work.

  • Pay attention to what you eat before your treatment. Research has suggested that the meal you eat before treatment may determine whether you experience nausea. Consume bland foods about two hours before treatment. The foods listed in the preceding bullet point would work well.

  • Try to get 20 to 30 g of protein at each meal. Some studies suggest that protein, in addition to ginger (discussed in the next bullet point), may help with nausea. This amount of protein taken several times a day has also been shown to help maintain muscle mass, which is critical during cancer treatment.

    A protein drink, a three-egg omelet, a 3-ounce chicken breast, 3/4 cup of cottage cheese, or a smoothie made with 8 ounces of low-fat milk and 8 ounces of yogurt or kefir can help you achieve this goal.

  • Try ginger. Some research suggests that the active compounds in ginger may have anti-nausea properties and may help food move through the digestive tract faster, further alleviating nausea. To reap the benefits of ginger, try drinking an ounce of a natural ginger ale like Ginger Brew, Ginger Beer, or Fresh Ginger before your meals.

    Because many mass-market ginger ales don’t actually contain ginger, be sure to carefully read labels before buying. Other ways to consume ginger include ginger snaps, ginger tea, crystallized ginger, and ginger chews or candies. One company that specializes in ginger products is Reed’s.

    High intake of ginger can interact with blood-thinning medications. If you’re taking a blood thinner, make sure your doctor is okay with your using ginger.

  • Drink liquids between meals. Sometimes having too much liquid in your stomach in addition to food can worsen nausea. Try drinking your liquids an hour or two before and after meals.

  • Avoid your favorite foods. You or your loved ones may be tempted to prepare your favorite foods to try to provide comfort during times when eating is a challenge. However, if you try to eat your favorite foods when you’re experiencing nausea, you may develop an aversion to these foods.

  • Limit or avoid spicy, acidic, and caffeinated foods and beverages. These foods can further irritate your stomach, making nausea worse.

  • Limit or avoid greasy, fried, or high-fat foods. High-fat foods or meals take longer to leave your stomach than low-fat foods do. Having food in your stomach too long can make nausea worse. Avoid obviously high-fat foods like bacon, sausage, full-fat dairy products, doughnuts or other pastries, or any greasy foods.

  • Try an acupressure wristband. Some studies suggest that acupressure wristbands may help alleviate nausea from chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery in some people. These bands work by putting pressure on the acupressure point on the wrist that is used for controlling nausea.

    The bands are available at most drugstores, are inexpensive, and come with instructions for use. Sea Bands is a common brand that you can look for. The bands should be used in combination with anti-nausea medication prescribed by your oncologist.

  • Talk with your doctor about acupuncture. Some studies show that acupuncture may help with nausea from chemotherapy or surgery. Your doctor may be able to refer you to a licensed acupuncturist.

  • Create a relaxing eating atmosphere. Stress can affect the digestive tract, causing or worsening nausea. Try as many stress management techniques as needed to relax before and after your meals. Deep breathing or a light walk may be helpful.

    Some people find that playing their favorite music during meals helps. You can also ask a loved one to give you a little massage or try massaging an acupressure point yourself to relieve nausea. One area to target is the soft, fleshy area between your thumb and forefinger.

  • Try cold or cool foods. If you’re experiencing nausea, just the smell of food may turn your stomach. During these times, it’s okay to make a meal out of a cold sandwich, stuffed tomato, or fruit or vegetable plate with a protein source.

    If a cold meal isn’t an option, this may be a good time to ask someone to do the food preparation for you so you don’t have to smell the food while it’s cooking.

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