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Sleep: Why it’s Extra Important if You Have Cancer

For people living with cancer, sleep doesn’t always come easy.

There are a number of reasons why. Steroids and other medications taken during treatment can cause insomnia. Side effects like nausea, pain, hot flashes and frequent trips to the bathroom can disrupt a good night’s sleep, too.

Sometimes the emotional effects of cancer – like worry, anxiety or depression – can also cause a person to lose sleep. And, let’s face it. Few people sleep well in the hospital. It’s noisy, there are lots of interruptions and it’s just not home.

Sleep is Good in Many Ways

But, everybody needs sleep. Sleep is restorative – both physically and emotionally. For adults, the only time our bodies produce human growth hormone (HGH) is during deep sleep. HGH helps cells reproduce and repair. In other words, sleep helps your body heal.

Not only that, it helps boost your immune system, which is especially important for patients with cancer because some chemotherapy medicines can weaken your immunities.

Sleep can improve your mood and help you interact with your medical providers and caregivers in a more positive way. It can make you more open to treatment. It can also help you think more clearly, which is pretty important if you need to keep track of medications, appointments or need to recognize when to ask for help.

For patients with cancer – and for all of us – sleep just improves our quality of life. Period.

Sleep Disruption is Common with Cancer

Researchers believe nearly half of patients with cancer suffer some sort of sleep disruption. Many don’t ask for help, though, because they might think it’s a minor issue or they’re afraid of becoming addicted to sleep aids.

If you or a loved one is in active cancer treatment – or even if you’re not – don’t be afraid to mention sleep issues to your care team. The key is to ask for help.

Sometimes, over-the-counter medications or herbal remedies are all you need to improve your sleep. Be sure to check with your oncologist and PCP before you add either to your regimen. And, remember, just because something is labeled “herbal” or “natural,” doesn’t mean it’s safe.

For other people, your doctor may need to tweak the medications you’re taking to combat side effects. If your side effects improve, it’s possible your sleep will, too. Or, your doctor might suggest a prescription sleep aid. And, that’s okay. If they help you get the rest you need to heal, then you’re far better off in the long run.

Tips to Improve Your Sleep

There are changes you can make, too, to improve your sleep.

  • Keep a diary of food, activity and sleep to see if you can spot trends.
  • Take your medications regularly and on time.
  • Help your brain relax by decreasing electronic stimuli like the TV, computer and cell phone for at least an hour before turning in.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and sugar.
  • Listen to soothing music or self-hypnosis messaging. If one doesn’t work, try another.
  • Identify five reasons you can’t sleep and see which ones you can eliminate. Does your spouse snore? Try sleeping in another room for a while.
  • Try complementary treatments like acupuncture, massage or yoga.

We all want to feel our best. And, good sleep definitely plays a part in that, as well as in healing our physical body and improving our emotional health. If you or a loved one are struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, be sure to talk to your care team to find out what they can do to help.


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