Nausea and Cancer: What You Need to Know

Medically Reviewed By: Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH 
  • While nausea is often thought of as a side effect of some cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, it can also be a sign or symptom of cancer.
  • A tumor in some part of the bowel, for instance, can cause a bowel obstruction that can lead to nausea or vomiting.
  • Nausea can also be caused by many different health problems, such as gallbladder disease, food poisoning, heart attacks, and ulcers.
  • If you have concerns about any health issues or potential symptoms, you should consult your doctor or care team.

Nausea and cancer are often related in that nausea can be a side effect of treatment, but can nausea be a symptom of cancer itself?

Is nausea a sign of colon cancer or other cancers?

If there is a tumor that lives in the colon, esophagus, stomach, or somewhere else in the bowel, it can cause a bowel obstruction. A bowel obstruction means that something — in this case, a tumor — is blocking the intestines and preventing solids and liquids from passing through to the colon. This can result in nausea or vomiting, according to Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH, director of clinical research in the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber.

Can nausea be a symptom of cancer?
Can nausea be a symptom of cancer?

Nausea and vomiting can also occur if there are tumors on the lining of the abdominal cavity, called the peritoneum, which can impair motility of the intestines and prevent food from being properly digested. This can be a common scenario in patients who also certain types of cancers, such as:

  • Lung cancer
  • Stomach cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Appendix cancer

A tumor in the brain can also increase pressure in the brain, which can induce nausea and vomiting.

There are two types of brain tumors: Primary brain tumors, which form inside the brain, and secondary (metastatic) brain tumors, which originate somewhere else in the body. When cancer spreads from its original site to the brain, it’s known as brain metastasis. Lung, breast, melanoma, and kidney tumors are examples of cancer types that are more likely to spread to the brain, according to Ng.

It’s important to note that nausea can be caused by many different health problems, such as:

  • Gallbladder disease
  • Food poisoning
  • Heart attacks
  • Ulcers

Cancer and vomiting

Nausea can also be caused by different kinds of cancer treatment, like chemotherapy and radiation — but due to improvements in drugs that treat nausea, many patients won’t experience these symptoms, or will only have mild discomfort.

“The anti-nausea drugs that we have these days are very good at managing treatment-related nausea,” Ng says. “The extreme sickness from cancer treatment that has often been portrayed in movies and TV shows is no longer the reality.”

About the Medical Reviewer

Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH 

Dr. Kimmie Ng is Associate Chief of the Division of Gastrointestinal Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA. She serves as Co-Director of the Colon and Rectal Cancer Center and the Director of Translational Research in the division. She is also the Founding Director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber, one of the first of its kind in the country. Her research focuses on identifying dietary, plasma, and molecular predictors of improved survival in patients with colorectal cancer, with a special interest in the vitamin D pathway, the microbiome, and young-onset colorectal cancer. Her research has been funded by the National Cancer Institute, Cancer Research UK, U.S. Department of Defense, and other foundation and industry grants. She has been featured in multiple national media outlets, including the TODAY Show, MSNBC, ABC News, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, to raise awareness of young-onset colorectal cancer and the importance of cancer screening.

Dr. Ng's clinical practice involves the care of patients with all types of gastrointestinal cancers. As Director of Translational Research, she oversees the Gastrointestinal Cancer Biobank and facilitates translational research projects with academic and industry collaborators. She is also involved in the design and conduct of clinical trials, and has served as Principal Investigator of several national multi-center randomized trials.

Dr. Ng obtained her Bachelor of Science degree with Distinction from Yale University and her Doctor of Medicine degree from University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. She completed her residency in internal medicine at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and a medical oncology fellowship at Dana-Farber/Partners CancerCare. She subsequently received a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.