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Is Nausea A Sign Of Cancer

by Clara Wynn
Is Nausea A Sign Of Cancer

Is Nausea A Sign Of Cancer

Is Nausea A Sign Of Cancer? Nausea is one of those things we all know how to deal with — you take an over-the-counter medication (like Dramamine) and everything’s good again. But what if your nausea isn’t just caused by motion sickness? What if it’s actually a sign of something more serious going on?

Nausea can be a side effect of certain treatments like radiation therapy, hormone replacement therapy and chemotherapy. It can also be a sign of another problem, though, such as bowel obstructions or infections. And finally, there are cases where the underlying disease itself causes nausea. For example, a tumor in some part of the bowel can cause a bowel obstruction that can lead to nausea or vomiting. An infection in the stomach or esophagus can cause nausea too. In fact, anything from food poisoning to ulcers can also cause nausea.

But most commonly, people think of nausea when they’re diagnosed with cancer. After a diagnosis, many patients become anxious about their condition because they worry about weight loss or appetite changes. They might even feel nauseated thinking about their illness. You may have heard that feeling sick after a meal means “I’ve got cancer,” but this isn’t necessarily true. If you experience severe nausea or vomiting, especially at night while lying down, you should see your doctor immediately. However, milder forms of nausea aren’t always signs of cancer either. So how do you tell which type of nausea is normal and which indicates a medical issue? Read on to find out.

Underlying Medical Conditions That Cause Nausea and Vomiting

The first thing you need to consider is whether your symptoms are due to an underlying medical condition. There are lots of conditions that could make you feel nauseous or vomit, including dehydration, low blood sugar levels, malnutrition, pregnancy, liver disease, kidney problems, viral infections, bacterial infections, heartburn, acid reflux, gallstones, migraine headaches, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety disorders, depression and alcohol use disorder [sources: WebMD; Mayo Clinic].

Some types of tumors can also cause nausea. Bowel obstructions can block the passage of food through the digestive tract. This causes distention of the intestines leading to bloating and flatulence as well as pain and discomfort. The stomach or small intestine becomes irritated causing nausea and vomiting. Sometimes, however, these tumors don’t cause enough pressure to push material into the bowels, so instead they press against the nerves leading to the bowel causing pain and resulting in nausea.

Treatment options vary depending on the source of the problem. Doctors will likely want to perform tests to rule out other issues before starting any sort of treatment. Once ruled out, the following treatments exist:

Bowel Obstructions

If a tumor has pushed up against the nerve bundle that controls movement of the colon, then surgery may be necessary to relieve the pressure. Surgery is also used to remove polyps or masses in the area that are pressing into the colon. Some doctors recommend using steroids and antihistamines to help reduce swelling and inflammation around the nerve.

Stomach or Small Intestine Tumors

When someone develops a tumor in the upper gastrointestinal tract, such as the esophagus or stomach, it can also cause nausea. Often times, these tumors require surgery as well. Radiation therapy can sometimes shrink the size of these tumors.


Antibiotics can treat both acute and chronic infections. Antiemetics (nauseants) can be prescribed to combat nausea and vomiting during the course of the antibiotics. These drugs work by blocking receptors in the brain that send signals to the gut to induce nausea and vomiting. Antihistamines can also be given to decrease itching and burning associated with allergic reactions.


Low sodium intake, not drinking enough fluids and diarrhea can result in dehydration. When the body doesn’t get enough water, the kidneys lose important functions and signal the brain to produce excess amounts of endorphins, known as “gut hormones.” These endorphins act as natural opiates that bind to opioid receptors found in the brain stem. Endorphin production increases the likelihood of nausea and vomiting. Dehydration can also increase the risk of constipation, making matters worse. Giving high doses of intravenous fluid can quickly restore hydration levels.

Blood Clot

A blood clot that blocks a major artery in the abdomen or pelvis can cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Urgent surgical intervention is required to prevent further complications.

Diagnosing Nausea

You’ll probably visit your primary care physician first to discuss your symptoms. Your doctor will order a series of tests to determine if your symptoms are related to a particular medical condition. Tests include x-rays, CT scans, MRI scans, ultrasound, blood testing and bone marrow biopsy. Blood tests will check electrolytes, thyroid function, vitamin B12 levels and glucose levels. X-rays can reveal structural abnormalities in the bones, lungs or digestive system. Ultrasound can show internal organs within the body. Bone marrow biopsies test for diseases affecting the blood cells.

Doctors usually diagnose nausea based on its severity. Mild nausea can be managed with diet modifications, lifestyle changes and medications. Severe cases, however, will require further evaluation.

For more information on treating nausea, read the next page.

It’s estimated that approximately 20 percent of cancer patients suffer from nausea and vomiting during their treatment. Women tend to develop nausea more frequently than men, particularly during chemotherapy. Chemotherapy disrupts healthy cell growth and kills them off. Healthy cells replace themselves faster than unhealthy ones. As a result, the older white female population tends to react more strongly to chemo than younger women. Other factors that may contribute to nausea during chemo include being overweight, having a family history of cancer, smoking cigarettes, taking anticoagulant medications, experiencing menstrual irregularities, or receiving radiation therapy.

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