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Feeling and being sick

Feeling sick (nausea) and being sick (vomiting) are very common if you have pancreatic cancer. This can be because of the cancer, or it can be a side effect of treatment. But there are treatments available for nausea and vomiting – it’s not something you have to put up with. There are effective anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs that can help. And some people also find that non-drug remedies or complementary therapies help. Read more about ways to manage sickness.

If you are being sick a lot and it’s not improving (persistent vomiting), you may need to go to hospital.

What causes sickness?

Sickness can be caused by several things, including the cancer itself, and treatments.

Sickness caused by the cancer

  • The cancer can block the bile duct, causing inflammation in the pancreas or jaundice. A hollow tube called a stent may be inserted to relieve the blockage and improve the symptoms.
  • The cancer can block the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestines. This can stop food passing out of the stomach into the duodenum, causing sickness. A stent may be inserted to relieve the blockage and the symptoms.
  • Pancreatic cancer, or the treatments for pancreatic cancer, can also cause constipation and changes to how well your bowel works, which can stop the stomach emptying properly and cause sickness.
  • If the cancer affects your liver, it can affect how well the liver works, and make you feel sick.

Sickness caused by treatments

  • If you have had a stent inserted, this could get blocked or infected.
  • Some treatments for the cancer, such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy, can make you feel sick.
  • Other drugs, such as painkillers called opiates (for example, morphine), can also make you feel sick.

You may feel sick after having surgery to remove the cancer (for example, a Whipple’s operation). This is because it can take your digestive system time to start working properly again. It can be treated with drugs and is usually only temporary. Some people do find that they continue to feel sick sometimes, and that different foods can cause sickness. It’s important that you tell your doctor or nurse about any problems. In very rare cases it can be a sign that there is a narrowing where they made a join during surgery. 

“After the Whipple’s, even 5 years on, I still occasionally feel nauseous.”

Does anything make sickness worse?

You might find that your sickness is worse if you have an empty stomach. Try eating something – even a small snack such as a banana, jelly or toast. What and when you eat can make a big difference to how you feel – our tips for coping with sickness might help.

Some medication, including antibiotics and painkillers, can also cause sickness. This means it’s important to take your medication as instructed. In particular, follow instructions about taking tablets with or after food as this will help to relieve sickness.

“I often have to nibble at things to keep nausea at bay. Rich foods and high fat foods such as cheese and cream can make it worse.”

Find out about what can help with feeling and being sick.


Published March 2016

To be reviewed March 2018

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