Coping with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment: fever, nausea (feeling sick)

This information offers suggestions that may help you cope with side effects during treatment for cancer.

If you are having treatment, you may not feel well. Treatment (including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation) can cause different symptoms. These include fatigue (tiredness), nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fever and infections, eating and bowel problems. While some of these side effects are unpleasant, others can pose risks to your health and recovery. Read below for some tips for handling side effects.


When side effects begin

Side-effects can begin within days of starting treatment. But it is more common for them to occur weeks or even months later. If your side-effects are severe, your cancer treatment team may reduce the dose to see if that helps. Most side-effects are temporary and will lessen once you have completed your treatment. Occasionally they are permanent.

Your cancer treatment team will discuss the risks with you. 


Some of the side effects caused by chemotherapy:


Fever and infection

This is much more common with chemotherapy than it is with radiation treatment:

A fever can be a sign that your body has an infection. Fevers can cause problems such as chills, shivering and headaches. It is important to find out the cause of the infection and get the right treatment It is possible to have an infection without a fever–just to feel unwell. In either case, contact your doctor immediately.

Some side-effects of chemotherapy can be very serious. You must contact your cancer treatment team or go to your nearest hospital emergency department immediately and tell them you are receiving chemotherapy treatment if you develop any of the following symptoms:

  • fever – a temperature over 38˚C
  • chills – shivers or shakes, feeling hot or cold
  • vomiting that continues after taking anti-sickness medication
  • diarrhoea – four or more loose bowel movements than usual and/or diarrhoea
  • gum or nose bleeds, or unusual bleeding (if bleeding does not stop after 10 minutes of ice and pressure)
  • pain – burning or blood in urine
  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing It is important that you do not wait until the next morning or after the weekend to seek assistance.
If fever develops (if your temperature is 38 degrees or over) or you feel unwell, take action quickly, even with a normal temperature, don’t wait to see what happens. Contact your cancer treatment team and follow the advice given.

Fevers are a sign that something is wrong, and should be treated and reported. If the fever gets too high, it can cause dehydration and seizures. When someone is having chemotherapy or radiation treatment, fevers can mean an infection, which is serious and needs medical treatment straight away.

Feeling sick (nausea) or vomiting

With radiation treatment, nausea and vomiting may happen. You may feel sick if you are having radiation to the oesophagus (food tube), stomach, bowel, brain or pelvic area. Make sure you tell your treatment team if you are feeling sick or vomiting as they can prescribe medication for relief of these side effects.

Tips to help if you are feeling sick:

  • avoid food with strong smells, or have it cold
  • avoid food that is fatty, fried, spicy or very sweet
  • eat small meals often rather than three large meals, as an empty stomach can make you feel sicker
  • some people find that ginger and peppermint help
  • drink plenty of fluids – having small amounts regularly may be easier to manage.

Tips to help if you have been sick:

  • try taking small sips of fluids or suck on an ice cube
  • try to eat something plain like crackers or dry toast
  • if you continue to feel sick, let your radiation treatment team know.

Other things you can do help yourself:

  • Get plenty of rest. Some people find resting helps them feel less sick. Some anti-sickness medicines make you sleepy.
  • Relax and try to think about something else. Watch TV, listen to the radio or anything else that relaxes you.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes. Tight clothes around the waist or neck, can make you feel sick.
  • Rinsing your mouth out can get rid of a bad taste. Avoid strong tasting or spicy foods.
  • Relaxation. Our relaxation programmes can be found here for you to use.

Other information on side effects

Managing eating problems

Managing pain

Managing hair loss

Living with lymphoedema/ understanding lymphoedema

Trouble sleeping

Constipation diarrhoea and bowel problems

Early menopause and cancer

Reviewed 2020