“Does Radiation Cause Nausea?” and Other FAQs to Help You Better Support a Loved One with Cancer

“Tell me if you need help with anything!” is something that people hear a lot after they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, but it’s often difficult for these individuals to articulate what it is that they need or to reach out to others and ask for help. So, it falls on their friends and loved ones to try to figure out what they can do to help on their own—even as they navigate their own emotions and stress of worrying about a loved one. A cancer diagnosis in a loved one can sometimes seem so overwhelming that it may feel as if you’re floundering and not sure of whether anything you can do would be useful at all.

But there’s a lot that you can do! Your loved one will still need your help, support, and encouragement – in fact, cancer survivors with strong support systems tend to have a more positive outlook, adjust to changes better, and experience a higher quality of life than those who do not.

And while every cancer journey is different and treatment is often in the hands of professionals, there are some common questions we get asked from caregivers and friends. Below are some of the most common ones we hear.

Does radiation cause nausea? What sorts of side effects should I be worried about?

Radiation can cause nausea, but it doesn’t always. It is more likely in treatments that involve radiotherapy of the gastrointestinal tract, liver, brain, or the entire body. That said, if your loved one is receiving both chemotherapy and radiation at the same time, they are more likely to get nausea. Radiation therapy is usually well tolerated, but your loved one may experience fatigue, making it difficult for them to perform tasks (even enjoyable ones!) that they used to handle with ease.

Can I hug someone going through radiation therapy? Is it safe for them to be around my pets and children?

With external beam therapy, your loved one will not be radioactive after treatment, so it’s safe to give them a hug or let them pet your dog! If they’re receiving radiopharmaceutical therapy (brachytherapy), they need to be a bit more careful. If this is the case, they will receive instructions from their care team on any extra precautions that need to be taken. During this time, it’s especially important to offer emotional support, so consider keeping in touch via phone or video calls.

How long is cancer treatment? How long will radiation therapy take?

It depends on the treatment. A typical radiation therapy regimen ranges from 6 to 9 weeks. Sessions occur five days a week (Monday-Friday), and each radiation therapy session is 10-15 minutes long. While individual treatments are short, they do happen often, and rides to and from treatment are very helpful.

If I have a cold, should I avoid someone going through treatment?

For many patients who are going through focused radiation treatment, radiation does not affect the immune system. This is because the radiation is focused on very specific places in the body and the beam can be designed to avoid the bone marrow, which is where most of our blood cells are produced, including the white blood cells that give us immunity. However, patients who are receiving total body irradiation or who are taking chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy will often have a weakened immune system, and you will need to take precautions before being around them.

How can I best help someone going through cancer?

This is the big question, and it boils down to five points: stay informed, stay in touch, process your own feelings separately, ask before giving advice, and offer practical support.

Stay informed

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably already doing this, but it’s useful to get an idea of what your loved one might be going through by doing your own research first. Coming into conversations with a basic understanding of what they are going through can help reduce their mental labor, as well as make you better equipped to know what may help them.

There is a lot of information out there, so it is useful to research both their specific cancer as well as their specific treatment. There is a big difference between radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and radiopharmaceutical therapy, for example.

Often your loved one’s individual cancer center will have resources you can access – like our Frequently Asked Questions page and our What to Expect with Radiation Therapy page. If your friend or family member would like you to be closely involved in their treatment, familiarizing yourself with the patient portal will enable you to help make appointments, fill out paperwork, and prepare questions for their treatment team.

When it comes to their personal cancer journey, you should also ask if they are open to or want to talk about what they are going through. Sometimes they won’t, and that’s okay! Some people struggle with accepting support and would much rather have a place where they can temporarily feel “normal” again and have conversations that aren’t centered around their diagnosis. Try to avoid feeling surprised or hurt if they refuse to talk about it with you; it’s likely that you’re still providing emotional support just by being present.

If they are willing to talk about it, ask if they would be willing to share their cancer treatment plan with you or describe the things they are currently struggling with in their treatment. Not only will this help you better understand how to help, but it will also enable you to organize others who might be afraid to ask but who are eager to help out as well. Being there for your loved one means that they know you still care about them no matter what they can or can’t do or how they look.

Stay in touch

Cancer can be incredibly isolating, not only because a patient may struggle with doing the things in their life that brought them joy, but also because conversations that involve illness and injury can be challenging. For some, conversations like these are to be avoided entirely, while many others simply don’t know how to talk about difficult topics or worry about offending the person involved.

The best thing you can do is stay in touch as much as possible. Let your friend or family member know that you’re willing to talk whenever they feel like it, and then follow up on that promise. Send texts, make short calls, or ask questions about how they’re doing so that they don’t feel as if they need to handle everything themselves.

You should always schedule ahead of time and call before a visit. Short, regular visits are often better than long and infrequent ones. Short visits are less likely to put additional strain on someone who may be experiencing fatigue, and regular visits let your loved one know that they’re a priority in your life. Visits give them something to look forward to. You don’t need to do much – simply keeping your friend company while they watch TV can be incredibly helpful to someone who is feeling isolated.

And be sure to coordinate with other caregivers or friends – it’s possible that the best way you can help is by running an errand for a caregiver, allowing everyone to offer the type of support for which they are best equipped.

Process your own feelings separately

Taking care of someone with cancer is challenging, but it’s important to avoid putting the emotional burden on the person going through the diagnosis. Try to remember that you’re there to support your loved one, and sometimes the best way to do that is to process your own feelings about their disease with someone else. Find someone outside the current situation to discuss it with or reach out to a mental health professional or local support group. Your company might even have an employee assistance program that you can use for exactly this purpose!

This can be even harder when your loved one seems to be having a rough time with their diagnosis. Try to understand without passing judgement or trying to change the way that they feel or act. They might feel depressed, angry, or guilty worrying that they might have done something to cause their cancer. All these emotions are perfectly normal and valid, and the way you speak with them can help them process those emotions rather than feeling as if they’re a burden or unworthy of treatment.

Ask before giving advice

Try to listen more than you speak. Your loved has an entire treatment team looking into the best solutions for their care, so offering advice isn’t always useful and can sometimes turn off the conversation entirely. It can be exhausting to explain to yet another person that the newest fad diet isn’t a good idea for them, or that a different treatment option isn’t ideal for their specific cancer diagnosis. Always ask if they are interested in advice before giving it.

Sometimes, all patients really need is for someone to listen. Focus the conversation as much as possible on things that make your friend feel more positive and ask them questions and opinions about the things that interest them and that you engaged with them on before they got sick.

Offer practical support

Sometimes, the hardest things for a person with cancer are the simple things – and getting them done doesn’t even have to involve the patient. If your loved one has a caregiver, ask them what practical help you can offer. See if you can get a list of weekly household tasks so you can choose one that you can regularly take on. Things like shopping, food prep, and errands still need to happen, and these are often easy to add onto errands you’re likely already doing.  

When in doubt, instead of simply offering generic help, suggest things that you would be willing to do. Could you water their plants for them? Clean their house once a week? Drop off meals that can be easily heated? Fold their laundry? Watch their dogs or children? Suggest it to them and, if they are interested, schedule a time when you will do it.

If you get have a list of tasks, remember that you don’t have to do them all yourself. There are websites that can assist with organizing such tasks among a group of friends or co-workers. Managing this can be a great way to support both the patient and the caregiver.

You might also want to look for small, practical gifts that you can simply bring to your loved one to remind them that they’re part of your life and you’re thinking about them. Just as with visits, small gifts given often are better than big gifts that only come every once in a while – and small items that bring them joy, like socks or self-care items, are exactly the sorts of things that fall through the cracks when one is sick.

No matter what, simply being there for your loved one is the most important thing. Everyone can use the support of friends and family, no matter how strong they are.

Schedule Your Appointment Today

If you are referred for radiation therapy during your cancer care, you get to choose where to receive treatment. We are here to support and encourage you—call us today to schedule your first appointment with one of our radiation oncologists at the cancer center nearest to you.