Sometimes radiotherapy to the chest can cause you to feel and be sick (nausea and vomiting). This is because the treatment area might include part of the stomach. And radiotherapy to the stomach can cause nausea and vomiting.
This might last for a few weeks after the treatment has finished. The sickness might be worse if you are having chemotherapy at the same time as the radiotherapy.
Medicines, diet, and sometimes complementary therapies can help to control sickness
The sickness can usually be well controlled with medicines. Your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) or specialist nurse can prescribe some anti sickness tablets (anti emetics) for you to take.
Most people find they can manage by taking an anti sickness tablet about 20 minutes or an hour before each radiotherapy session.
Other people find they manage better by taking anti sickness tablets regularly throughout the day while having a course of treatment. You can discuss with your doctor or specialist nurse which would be best for you.
Make sure you go back to your doctor or specialist nurse and tell them if your anti sickness tablets don't seem to help. There are lots of different anti sickness medicines and sometimes it takes a few tries to find the one that suits you.
Complementary therapies can help to relax you. This might help with feeling sick.
Some people find that relaxation techniques such as visualisation help to reduce their nausea. Others have found that hypnotherapy and acupuncture can help, especially if the very thought of having treatment makes you sick. This is called anticipatory nausea and vomiting.
Acupressure bracelets or Seabands press on acupuncture points in the wrist and might help to reduce nausea for some people.
Here are some tips that might be helpful:
- Avoid fried foods, fatty foods or foods with a strong smell.
- Have a small meal a few hours before treatment but not just before.
- Drink lots of liquid, taking small sips slowly throughout the day - but avoid drinking a lot just before treatment.
- Avoid filling your stomach with a large amount of liquid before eating.
- Eating fresh pineapple chunks can help to keep your mouth fresh and moist.
- If you are worried about losing weight, ask your doctor to prescribe high calorie drinks.
- Ask someone else to make your meals for you, if you can.
- Try eating small meals or snacks more often rather than large meals.
- Try sipping fizzy drinks.
- Eat dry crackers.
Some people find ginger very good for reducing nausea. You can try ginger in whichever way you prefer, for example as crystallised stem ginger.
Freshly ground ginger can be added to your favourite foods or to hot water to make a soothing tea. You can buy ginger tea bags in supermarkets. Or you can try eating ginger biscuits or sipping ginger ale.
Sickness or problems eating can cause you to lose weight. You may feel tired and weak. Sometimes you might not feel like eating at all. It is important to try and maintain a well-balanced diet where possible as this can help to speed up your recovery. The dietitian or your doctor can give you advice if eating is a problem.
Radiotherapy can cause many different side effects, such as tiredness. The side effects you get will depend on the area you're having treatment to but there are some general side effects you might experience regardless of where your cancer is. This video is about the side effects you might have when having radiotherapy to the chest.
On screen text: Difficulty swallowing
Martin (Radiographer): Radiotherapy can irritate the lining of your oesophagus, also known as your food pipe, which can cause soreness and swelling and make it more difficult to swallow.
David: After about two weeks it started to get more difficult to swallow. The more it progressed, the worse it got and ended up couldn't eat anything solid at all so it was virtually down to liquids.
Laurel: I wasn't physically able to swallow anything whatsoever and that was quite challenging because I was thirsty and I was hungry, but, you know, nothing was happening.
Martin (Radiographer): Eating foods which are softer and easier to swallow can be helpful. Things such as soup and porridge or mashed potatoes.
Laurel: Yoghurt or custard were easier because I don't need to chew on anything.
David: Soups, trifles, tiramisus. It's down to trial and error and keep trying to eat what you can because you really have to keep your body up to scratch.
Martin (Radiographer): I'd recommend avoiding very spicy foods and avoiding foods which are very hot or very cold.
Laurel: Spicy food, definitely avoid the peppers and stuff like that.
Martin (Radiographer): For chest radiotherapy, we would recommend that you avoid alcohol as this can cause more irritation in the area we're treating.
Laurel: I had a dietitian and either on the phone or they'd pop in.
David: So they noticed that my weight was coming down so they got a dietitian in and she prescribed all these protein drinks.
Martin (Radiographer): You can replace the calories by swapping foods for high calorie alternatives, or your dietitian can recommend high calorie drinks and food supplements. If you're experiencing pain or heartburn during treatment, speak to your team and they can prescribe medication that can help with that.
On screen text:
- Try different foods to find out which are easiest to swallow
- Avoid eating foods that may irritate your throat
- Avoid smoking and alcohol, particularly spirits
- You might need high calorie drinks to boost your calorie intake
- Drink lots of water
- Let your team know if you need painkillers
- Ask to see a dietician
On screen text: Feeling or being sick
Laurel: Yes, being sick was one of the worst things happening.
David: I was just constantly being sick. I would have my porridge in the morning, wait a couple of minutes and it would be up again so it was just one of these things.
Martin (Radiographer): What you eat and drink can affect how sick you feel during treatment. You can drink fizzy drinks and eat ginger, which can help reduce sickness and we'd recommend avoiding fatty foods or big heavy meals, which can make you feel more sick.
Laurel: But I didn't realise, okay, you can get medication for the anti-sickness until the medical team realises that's what was needed. It's helped me slowing not being sick as often as I would have done because a lot of things I would just be gagging.
Martin (Radiographer): If you are having problems eating and drinking during your treatment, there are dieticians available which can help you.
On screen text:
- Your doctor can prescribe anti sickness medication
- Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and visualisation might help
- Avoid certain foods
- Eating a few hours before treatment can help
- Drink lots of liquid, taking small sips slowly throughout the day
- See a dietician for advice – there is help available
On screen text: Shortness of breath
Martin (Radiographer): Having radiotherapy to the chest can affect your breathing. This may come on about two weeks after treatment begins and will continue throughout the rest of treatment. Once you've finished treatment, the breathlessness may continue for a couple of weeks, but then recovers after that. Depending on your diagnosis and treatment you may experience long term breathing problems and your doctor will discuss that with you before you start treatment.
David: So I've been constantly shortness of breath and I take inhalers twice a day now. I just have to be careful in what I do. I can walk for miles on the flat but as soon as an incline, that's when I start to get short of breath. I go out walking or cycling everyday, so that's just a constant to try and keep it going.
Martin (Radiographer): If you are experiencing shortness of breath, we would recommend speaking to your team as soon as you notice it, just to make sure there isn't something else going on, such as an infection or blood clots.
On screen text:
- Shortness of breath can happen during and after radiotherapy
- It usually improves after treatment finishes
- It can continue long term
- Always let your specialist or radiographer know if you are short of breath
If you're experiencing a side effect that hasn't been covered in this video, you can find more information on the Cancer Research UK website.
On screen text: For more information go to: cruk.org/radiotherapy/side-effects