Nausea (feeling sick)

Sickness and nausea can make even your favourite food a turn-off, but there are things that can help

Feeling and being sick can be a symptom of the cancer itself or a side-effect of treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, biological therapies or hormone therapies. 

Some medications, such as pain medication and bisphosphonates (medication that slows down or prevents bone damage), can also cause sickness, as can the other side-effects of cancer treatment, such as constipation. 

It is important to discuss this with your doctor as they can prescribe anti-sickness medication, which should be taken as prescribed and preferably before meals to ensure that it’s working when you eat.

What can help?

Choosing what to eat

  • Everyone is different, so try experimenting to see what you can tolerate.
  • Small, light meals or snacks, eaten often, might be easier than large meals. If possible, avoid having an empty stomach as this can make you feel sick too. Try nibbling on dry foods, like toast or crackers, especially first thing in the morning.
  • Some people find they only want bland foods such as potato, rice and pasta, whereas others prefer salty things like Marmite, soup, salty crackers, popcorn or nuts. Start with foods you can tolerate and gradually build up to a more varied diet if you start feeling better.
  • Some people find that food or drink containing ginger or peppermint can help settle their stomach.
  • If the smell of cooking makes you feel sick, opt for cold foods and snacks, or frozen food that you can reheat quickly (make sure it’s cooked properly). It’s fine to use convenience foods, cans or packets if that’s easier. You could also ask friends or family to cook meals while you’re in another room. If they cook you something but you don’t manage to eat it, you could put it in the fridge or freezer for later.

Drinking enough fluid

It is important to avoid becoming dehydrated, especially if you’ve actually been sick. Ice cold, fizzy drinks, such as sparkling mineral water or soda water, might help. Some people also find that milk helps to settle their stomach. It’s best to sip your drinks slowly and to have drinks before or after your meals, rather than while you’re eating.

Foods to avoid

These foods and drinks can make sickness worse, so you might want to see if avoiding them helps:

  • Greasy, fatty and fried foods
  • Spicy food
  • Caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee and cola
  • Alcohol

Mealtimes

  • If strong smells make you feel nauseous, try eating in a room where there’s lots of fresh air and away from the smell of cooking or other strong smells such as flowers.
  • Anxiety can make nausea worse, so try to make yourself as comfortable and relaxed as possible. Wearing loose clothing might also help.
  • Try to sit upright while you’re eating and for a while after – if possible, don’t lie down for two hours after eating. Also, try to avoid doing anything too active straight after eating.

If you have experienced severe vomiting and can’t keep any food or drink down, tell your doctor. They can prescribe anti-sickness medication for you.