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The Importance of Sleep in Cancer Recovery

  • 10.31.2018

A good night’s sleep is just as important to our overall health as good nutrition and exercise. Unfortunately, cancer and its treatment can make it difficult to get the ideal amount of rest. Pain, fatigue, discomfort from the chemotherapy and medication side effects are just a few of the things that can make quality sleep difficult.

Unfortunately, not getting enough sleep can also weaken the immune system, making it even more critical to address this important issue for cancer patients.

Common causes of sleep problems 

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the three largest sleep issues facing cancer patients are insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness and restless legs syndrome.

  • While insomnia is not considered a common side effect of chemotherapy, many cancer-related medicines can disrupt sleep. Some studies show that insomnia affects one-third to one-half of cancer patients, which is two to three times higher than the general population.

  • Chemotherapy also leads to fatigue, causing patients to sleep more during the day, which can upset sleep at night. 

  • Restless Leg Syndrome, a strong urge to move the lower limbs in order to relieve a pins and needles sensation, is common in women with breast cancer and men 50 and older who have prostate cancer.

With all of these issues, combined with the emotional stress of having cancer, it’s no wonder cancer patients struggle to get a good night’s rest.

Getting better sleep when you have cancer, which provides information for getting better sleep overall, shares a few tips for improving sleep habits for cancer patients and caregivers.

  • Consistency is key. Go to bed at the same time ever day, keep your room dark, avoid heavy meals, caffeine, alcohol or intense exercise leading up to bedtime.
  • Restrict daytime sleep. Strictly follow your sleep and wake-up schedule and don’t allow naps during the day. Ideally, the daytime fatigue will disappear over time.
  • Cooler bedroom and bedding can help patients experiencing night sweats or hot flashes. Lowering the bedroom temperature below 60 could help, as can investing in breathable bedding and clothing.
  • White noise machines play static white noise, nature sounds, or calming music designed to encourage sleep.
  • Weighted blankets can work well for patients with restless leg syndrome.

In addition to these tips, we received more from an informal poll of former cancer patients.

  • Danny was diagnosed with brain cancer right after college. He recommends reading a book until your eyes can no longer remain open. “I read 20 books in 15 months while going through my treatment,” he shares. “Plus, finishing a book will give you a sense of accomplishment.”
  • Leslie used a combination of self-hypnosis, acupuncture and natural herbs.
  • Julie purchased a zero gravity chair to relieve the pressure from her incisions.
  • Mercedes used a weighted blanket while going through treatment for breast cancer. She also took magnesium oxide half an hour before bedtime.
  • Natalie used Tranquility, a natural sleep and anxiety aid.

The Sierra Nevada Cancer Center team will work with you to manage all your cancer treatment symptoms, including poor sleep. For more resources and information about cancer prevention and treatment approaches, browse our blog. For current cancer-related health news delivered to your inbox, subscribe to Sierra Nevada Cancer Center’s Newsletter.



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