Nausea and Vomiting

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Eating right can help you get through cancer treatment

Nausea and vomiting can affect how much you eat and what you eat. And good nutrition is important for people being treated for cancer. Many factors related to the illness itself, as well as cancer treatments, can make you not feel like eating and may affect your body’s ability to take in food and use nutrients.

Nutritional needs vary during cancer treatment. Some people have trouble getting enough protein and calories during treatment; others gain weight. Your health care team can help you come up with nutrition goals and find an approach to eating that meets your needs. Eating healthy foods while going through cancer treatment can help you:

  • Feel better
  • Keep up your strength and energy level
  • Stay at a healthy weight
  • Keep up your body’s store of nutrients
  • Better handle treatment-related side effects
  • Lower your risk of infection
  • Recover and heal as quickly as possible

Eating well means eating many different kinds of foods that will give you the nutrients you need for healing. We have a lot of information on nutrition during cancer treatment. Visit us online or call us to learn more.

Some patients need to be treated at a center far from their home, which can make it hard for them to eat well. Most treatment centers have some type of kitchen space. Patients can use this area to store and prepare frozen foods, soups, single servings of fruits, puddings, gelatin, ice cream, or cereals. If there’s no kitchen, bring food items that do not need refrigeration, such as single serving packs of canned fruit, gelatin, puddings, cheese or peanut butter crackers, granola bars, or cereal. A nurse or social worker might be able to give you ideas about places to stay and eat while you are getting treatment.

Tips for people getting chemo

Here are a few tips that may help reduce nausea and vomiting if you are getting chemo.

  • On the days you get chemo, make sure you have had something to eat. Most people find that a light meal or snack before chemo is best.
  • In most cases, chemo is given on an outpatient basis, such as in an infusion center or a doctor’s office. Getting chemo can take a few minutes or many hours. Plan ahead and bring a light meal or snacks with you. Many treatment centers have refrigerators and microwaves you can use.
  • Feeling tired or lacking energy (fatigue) is very common when getting chemo. There are some things you can do to deal with fatigue, such as set priorities, pace yourself, ask others to do chores, plan activities when you have the most energy, know your limits, and eat balanced meals. See our information called Fatigue in People With Cancer to learn more.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself if side effects make it hard to eat. Try eating small, frequent meals or snacks. Choose the foods that appeal to you the most. Your taste can change on an almost day-to-day basis when you are getting cancer treatment.
  • Make the most of days when you feel well and your appetite is good. Always try to eat regular meals and snacks but listen to your body. Never force yourself to eat something that you don’t want, or if you feel full.
  • Ask family and friends for help shopping and cooking. If you don’t have help, think about having meals delivered to your home or maybe having lunch at a local community or senior center. Contact community assistance organizations, area churches, or call us at 1-800-227-2345 for more ideas.
  • Most side effects last a short-time and go away when treatment is over. If symptoms last, you should tell your health care team. Nutrition-related side effects should be dealt with right away to help you keep up your weight and energy.

Tips for people getting radiation therapy

The types of side effects you have during radiation therapy depend on the part of your body getting radiation, the size of the area being treated, the total dose of radiation, and the number of treatments. The list below shows different parts of the body that may be treated and the possible side effects that may make it hard to eat.

  • Brain, spinal cord: nausea, vomiting
  • Tongue, voice box, tonsils, salivary gland, nose, throat (pharynx): sore mouth, trouble swallowing or pain with swallowing, change in or loss of taste, sore throat, dry mouth, thick saliva
  • Lung, esophagus, breast: trouble swallowing, heartburn
  • Large or small intestine, prostate, uterus, cervix, rectum, pancreas: loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas, bloating

Eating well is important both during and after treatment. If side effects develop or if the anti-nausea/vomiting medicines are not working, tell your health care team.

Here are some eating tips you can try if you’re getting radiation therapy:

  • Try to eat something at least an hour before treatment rather than going to treatment with an empty stomach.
  • Bring food or nutrition supplements to eat or drink on the ride to and from treatment if you must travel a long distance for treatment each day.
  • Eat small meals every 2 to 3 hours. Ask friends and family members to help prepare meals, do the shopping, and choose the foods and drinks you enjoy most.
  • Don’t expect to have the same side effects as someone else being treated for cancer in another part of the body. Even people with the exact same treatments have different degrees of side effects.
  • Get to know other cancer patients and talk with them about their experiences, or join a support group. Other patients can be a great source of information and support.

Managing side effects that make it hard for you to eat right

If you’re having trouble eating and/or you’re on a special diet (such as for diabetes or heart disease), your food restrictions might be relaxed during cancer treatment. But you should speak with your health care team before making any changes. Here are some things you can do to try to eat as well as possible during treatment:

  • Try to eat small meals every 2 or 3 hours rather than eating 3 large meals.
  • Add extra calories and protein to foods. Liquid or powdered nutrition supplements are handy during this time. Try different brands and flavors to find out which ones taste best and work best for you. Your doctor, nurse, or a dietitian may be able to tell you more about types of products available and may have samples you can try.
  • Try eating most of your food during the time of day when you are best able to eat. Many people find that breakfast time is best.
  • Let your health care team know if eating is a problem. Ask a dietitian to give you more tips to help with eating.
  • Let your health care team know when anti-nausea/vomiting medicines don’t work.

There are also things you can do to help manage or reduce your nausea and vomiting. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Eat foods and drink beverages that are “easy on the stomach” or made you feel better when you had the flu or morning sickness. These are often things like ginger ale, bland foods, sour candy, and dry crackers or toast.
  • Do not force yourself to eat when you feel nauseated.
  • Limit your fluid intake during meals.
  • Eat food cold or at room temperature.
  • Have someone else make the meals if you have nausea.
  • Keep your mouth clean; if you vomit, clean your mouth after each time.
  • Wear loose fitting clothes.
  • Get fresh air with a fan or open window.
  • Limit sounds, sights, and smells that cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Call your doctor or nurse if your nausea or vomiting is not prevented or controlled with the medicines you have.

You can get more information on eating during cancer treatment in Nutrition for the Person With Cancer During Treatment: A Guide for Patients and Families read it online or call us to have a free copy sent to you.

Nausea and vomiting can be unpleasant side effects of cancer treatment. But they should not be accepted as a part of cancer treatment – they can be controlled and even prevented. Talk to your health care team if you are having nausea and vomiting. Be willing to work with them to find the right anti-nausea/vomiting medicines for you.

Last Medical Review: 02/27/2013
Last Revised: 03/27/2013