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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 a side effect of treatment.

There are treatments available for nausea and vomiting – it’s not something you have to put up with. For example, there are effective anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs that can help. And some people also find other things such as ginger and peppermint or complementary therapies  helpful.

Feeling and being sick is unpleasant and distressing. It may also mean that you aren’t properly absorbing medication that you take as tablets. If you are being sick a lot, there is a risk that you could become dehydrated (where your body loses more water than it takes in). Being sick a lot without any improvement (persistent vomiting) is a clear sign that something is wrong, and you may need medical attention in hospital. Read more about persistent vomiting.

What causes sickness?

For people with pancreatic cancer there can be many different causes of sickness.

Blocked duodenum and bile duct

The cancer can block the duodenum (the first part of the small intestines). This can stop food passing out of the stomach into the duodenum, causing sickness and vomiting. It can also block the bile duct causing jaundice, which can make you feel and be sick.

If you have a blocked duodenum or bile duct, a hollow tube called a stent may be put in to open up the blockage and relieve the sickness. Sometimes stents get blocked or infected, making you feel sick again. If this happens the stent may need to be replaced.

Some treatments for the cancer

Some treatments for the cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, can make you feel sick. You may be given anti-sickness medication to help with this.

You may also 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. Eating smaller meals more often can also help.

Problems digesting food

Pancreatic cancer can cause problems with digesting food, which can make you feel and be sick. Problems digesting food can be treated with pancreatic enzyme supplements, which should relieve sickness. Read more about diet and pancreatic cancer.

Some medications

Some medications such as antibiotics and opioid painkillers (for example, morphine) can make you feel sick. Follow the advice your medical team give you about how to take your medication, as this will help to prevent sickness. This includes instructions about taking tablets with or after food.

Opioid painkillers can cause constipation (problems emptying your bowels), which can cause sickness, as well as being very uncomfortable. You should be given medicines called laxatives to take with opioids. If these don’t help, speak to your nurse or doctor.

Anxiety

Feeling anxious or distressed about pancreatic cancer or the treatment you are having can make you feel sick. For example, people sometimes feel sick because they feel anxious before chemotherapy treatment. Your doctor or nurse may give you a drug to treat anxiety, such as lorazepam, to help with this. Or you might find relaxation techniques can help.     

What can help with feeling and being sick?

Published August 2018

To be reviewed August 2021

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