Sleep is a vital aspect of overall health and well-being, and it is especially important for cancer patients. Cancer can take a toll on the body and mind, and getting enough rest can help your body repair and regenerate cells, boost the immune system, and reduce stress and anxiety. However, you may have a harder time sleeping due to the side effects of treatment, pain, and other factors. In this article, we will discuss some sleep strategies that you can adopt to improve your chances of getting a restful night’s sleep.
Establishing sleep habits
Your body may become more conscious that it is time to rest if you support it by setting the "mood" for sleep. Here are some steps you can take to do so:
- Establish a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This will assist in tuning the body's internal clock and make it easier for you to fall asleep at night. Avoid taking naps during the day because they can interfere with your body's natural cycle of sleep and wakefulness.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption, especially in the evening. Consider beverages free of caffeine, such as warm milk or decaf tea.
- Create a comfortable sleep environment by keeping the room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. A comfortable bed with a supportive mattress is also helpful, as these can gently support your back and body. Aromatherapy may also help, and we suggest essential oils such as lavender, chamomile, and vanilla, as they have a proven calming effect.
- Don’t engage in overstimulating activities such as watching television or using electronic devices before bedtime, as the blue light from these devices can suppress melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep.
Cognitive behavioral interventions
Cognitive behavioral interventions (CBIs) are based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected and can affect our sleep. By addressing these thoughts and behaviors, CBIs can help cancer patients improve their sleep. Some examples of CBIs are the following:
- Relaxation training includes techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery, which can help reduce stress and anxiety, making it easier to fall asleep.
- Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying and changing negative thoughts or beliefs that may be affecting sleep, such as worrying about cancer treatment or the future.
- Sleep restriction therapy calls for limiting the amount of time you spend in bed to match the amount of time spent sleeping, with the goal of enhancing the drive to sleep. It's important to note that some of these interventions may not be appropriate for all cancer patients. A sleep specialist or behavioral therapist can help find the best fit for you and your situation.
Managing cancer treatment side effects
Chemotherapy, radiation, and medication can all affect your sleep pattern and quality. As you undergo a combination of these modalities, it’s important that you communicate any symptoms you may be experiencing to your doctor so that they can help you counter any treatment side effects.
- To address insomnia, your doctor may prescribe a class of medications such as sedative-hypnotics (zolpidem, eszopiclone) or melatonin receptor agonists (ramelteon). Melatonin supplements, which can be used to help reset the body's internal clock, may also be prescribed.
- Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by repetitive pauses in breathing during sleep. This can cause you to wake up frequently, leading to poor-quality sleep and daytime fatigue. If you are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, you may be referred to a sleep specialist for a sleep study to diagnose the condition. Treatment options include lifestyle changes such as weight loss and positional therapy, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, and, in severe cases, surgery.
- Acid reflux can affect sleep in several ways. The symptoms of acid reflux, such as heartburn, chest pain, and a sour taste in the mouth, can be particularly bothersome at night, making it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. It can also cause sleep-disordered breathing. If acid reflux is affecting your sleep, you may need to circumvent certain foods or eat smaller meals to help curtail symptoms, or you may be prescribed medications to reduce acid production in the stomach.
- Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move the legs, which typically occurs at night and is relieved by movement, making it difficult for people with RLS to fall or stay asleep. If you are experiencing RLS, your treatment options may include medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes such as regular exercise and maintaining a favorable iron level through diet or supplements.
Putting together a sleep diary
Consider putting together a sleep diary to record information about your sleep habits and patterns. A sleep diary typically includes information about the time you go to bed and wake up, the time it takes to fall asleep, any nocturnal interruptions or awakenings, and any symptoms or feelings associated with your sleep and cancer. You can present this diary during consultations with your healthcare providers so that they can have a thorough picture of your current status and make recommendations accordingly.
Navigating the challenges
It's typical to experience extreme fatigue during cancer therapy, particularly in the first few years, but it is important to remember that you are not alone. Your healthcare providers will be with you at every step of your treatment, and they will help ensure that your treatment journey is as smooth-sailing as can be.
If you are currently experiencing any sleep problems, talk to your doctor now to find out the best course of action.
About The Author:
Jennifer Hardy, SleepingBetter.co
How Precision Medicine in Oncology Has Dramatically Changed the Way Cancer is Diagnosed and Treated
And What Patients Need to Know
She has been researching sleep science for years and is all about creating the perfect sleep sanctuary for herself because she knows how powerful good sleep can be on your health and beauty. She loves reviewing everything from pillows for snorers to the best mattresses.
Kwekkeboom K, Zhang Y, Campbell T, et al. Randomized controlled trial of a brief cognitive-behavioral strategies intervention for the pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbance symptom cluster in advanced cancer. Psychooncology. 2018;27(12):2761-2769.
Palmer ACS, Zortea M, Souza A, et al. Clinical impact of melatonin on breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy; effects on cognition, sleep and depressive symptoms: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. PLoS One. 2020;15(4):e0231379.