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Cancer and Sleep

By Rethink Contributor January 11 2018

It’s common for cancer patients to experience sleep problems. In fact, between 30 to 70 percent of people going through cancer treatment have some sleep difficulty. These difficulties sometimes continue even into post-treatment, with about 25 percent of cancer survivors experiencing sleep issues. Breast cancer patients are often affected by sleep problems during and after treatment, and many report struggling with insomnia and discomfort caused by hot flashes at night.

Sleep disorders are common among cancer patients.

Extensive treatment, increased anxiety and depression, pain, and other discomforts during cancer treatment can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Cancer patients may be affected by sleep struggles including insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, and restless legs syndrome. Insomnia may be caused by medications used to treat cancer, including steroids. Chemotherapy drugs can cause fatigue. Many cancer patients nap during the day, but this can lead to insomnia at night.

Not getting enough sleep can have especially negative effects for cancer patients.

Sleep deprivation is always difficult, but it is especially tough for cancer patients. Not getting enough sleep can weaken the immune system and make symptoms or negative side effects worse. Sleep deprived cancer patients may also experience weight loss or weight gain, poorer memory and cognitive processing skills, increased irritability and higher risk for depression, and poorer judgement. Not getting enough sleep can make it more difficult to recover.

You may experience night sweats and hot flashes during chemotherapy.

Some cancer patients experience night sweats or hot flashes at night. Overheating can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s a good idea to lower your bedroom temperature and use breathable bedding and clothing at night. Consider a mattress with buckling column gel if you’re experiencing hot flashes or night sweats. This mattress material is more cooling than memory foam and latex and can help avoid retaining heat.

You can get better sleep with good sleep hygiene.

Good sleep starts with good sleep hygiene. You can train your brain and body to become tired at the same time each night by maintaining a regular sleep schedule. You should go to bed and wake up about the same time every day, and keep up a consistent bedtime routine in which you do the same few things before bed each night. This can signal to your brain that it’s bedtime and help induce feelings of sleepiness that can help you drift off comfortably. It’s also a good idea to keep your bedroom dark and quiet. Be careful about what you do in the hours before sleep. You should avoid caffeine, alcohol, exercise, heavy meals, and screen time just before bed, as these can interfere with your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep all night.

Sleep therapy can be helpful.

If you’re experiencing serious sleep disorders that can’t be resolved with better sleep hygiene, sleep therapy may be necessary. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be used to improve sleep and treat insomnia by addressing your sleep behavior and identifying actions you can take to improve your sleep habits. Some sleep therapies include sleep restriction therapy with a particular sleep and wake schedule and light therapy with light exposure to reset your circadian rhythm.

Sarah Johnson, Tuck Sleep Foundation