Well Ahead Blog

Back to Well Ahead Blog

How cancer affects sleep

Paoli Hospital March 3, 2016 General Wellness

A little tossing and turning here, a late night there…sleep problems can be a problem every now and then for some of us but, for cancer patients, sleepless nights can add up quickly.

According to the National Cancer Institute, as many as half of cancer patients are affected by sleep disorders. Unfortunately, these sleep disorders can begin to interfere with treatment, impacting both physical and mental well-being.

But what is it about cancer that makes sleep disorders so prevalent?

How cancer affects sleep

Although cancer does not directly affect sleep, the side effects of cancer treatment—both physical and emotional—can interfere with getting a good night’s sleep. Cancer may affect sleep directly and indirectly, by the disease itself or indirectly through treatments, medication effects, stress, and anxiety.

“The effects of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments can be taxing and affect patients in very different ways, but it’s not uncommon for these effects to manifest themselves through sleep issues like insomnia or hypersomnia,” explains Kathleen Sacharian, CRNP, nurse practitioner for the Cancer Survivorship Program.

Cancer patients are often affected by physical impact of treatments or medications such as pain, hot flashes, and night sweats, which can affect their sleep. This is often worsened by the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis, which can lead to depression, fear, stress, or anxiety. Hospitalizations, sleeping during the day, and altered sleep patterns also can impact sleep. All of these issues combined often lead to less sleep and, for patients who are sleeping, poorer quality sleep.

“We do encourage our patients who are having trouble sleeping to talk to us and to see how we can help improve their sleep,” says Sacharian. “This can be working with them to treat underlying symptoms that contribute to poor sleep, or discussing relaxation techniques. There are a number of modalities that we employ to work with them to try and improve their sleep experience, because it is so important for healing.”

Better sleep for survivors

Even after cancer treatment, sleep issues can persist.

“Insomnia can be a chronic issue. Patients who had trouble sleeping during their cancer treatment may continue struggling with sleep once their treatment is over. Some medications that are prescribed long term may also cause difficulty sleeping” explains Sacharian.

There are steps you can take to get back to a better night’s sleep. Sacharian recommends making a few changes to your habits and environment, including:

  • Treat the underlying causes of symptoms you may be experiencing
  • Being consistent with sleep and waking times, even on the weekends. Keep naps short (less than a hour) and earlier in the day
  • Create a bedtime routine such as taking a warm bath, drinking decaffeinated tea, or by doing something relaxing that doesn’t involve a computer, tablet, cell phone, or television
  • Creating a positive sleep environment. Your bedroom should be cool, with dim lighting, and comfortable bedding to create an environment conducive to sleep
  • Limiting your caffeine intake, especially before bed. Don’t drink any caffeinated beverages at least four hours before bed
  • Exercising regularly (at least a few hours prior to bedtime) for as little as 3 days a week for 30 minutes can make a difference.

If you’re still having trouble after putting these changes into practice, then it may be time to seek the help of a sleep medicine specialist or explore cognitive behavioral treatment for insomnia. Your health care provider can help you decide which option is best for you.

“There are many cancer patients who have gotten used to the idea of very little or poor quality sleep, even during survivorship,” says Sacharian. “But sleep is an important part of an overall healthy lifestyle and, by working with your health care provider, you can ensure that you are back on the road to healthy sleep behaviors.”

Main Line Health has four Cancer Centers dedicated to the early detection, treatment, and prevention of breast, prostate, colorectal, lung, and other cancers. Visit our website to learn more about Main Line Health cancer services.