Sleep and cancer - Maggie's Centres

Sleep and cancer

Many people with cancer find that their sleep is disturbed. Whilst the occasional lost night’s sleep feels manageable, ongoing sleeplessness (insomnia) can feel exhausting, and lead to anxiety and depression.

The causes for a broken night’s sleep can be due to a number of factors. The cancer itself, side effects of treatments, pain, and anxiety can all disturb sleep.  

There are a number of strategies to help get a better night’s rest -  including good 'sleep hygiene’  a term health care professionals use to  describe developing good practices and habits that help provide the right environment for sleep. 

The information on this page will help you to find out more about sleeplessness, and ways to manage it, during and after cancer treatment.

Sleeplessness (insomnia)

Sleep is one of life’s essentials, providing rest and recovery. It also helps maintain our physical and emotional wellbeing. A lack of sleep affects quality of life, and can lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression and poor concentration.  

Sleeplessness (insomnia) is when you have difficulty getting off to sleep, and/or have wakeful times during the night. For some people it’s waking up very early and not being able to get back to sleep.  It may be an ongoing pattern, and sometimes insomnia may have been a problem for many years before the cancer began.

The causes can be a mix of physical symptoms and psychological  overactivity - the cancer itself causing problems, side effects of treatments, and the mind working overtime. Side effects of treatments include hot flushes, pain, nausea, needing to visit the toilet frequently . Some drug therapies cause wakefulness. (steroids, for example).  

The average adult’s nightly sleep is between 6 - 8 hours.  You may sleep less or more than this. It’s the broken night’s sleep, with no feeling of rest, that can cause distress.

Studies have shown that up to a half of  people with cancer have sleep disturbance, and poor sleep patterns. Often the symptom goes unreported - you may feel that it’s normal not to be sleeping so well, and be trying to put up with it. However if you find you’re having more than three nights without sleep, or every night has broken episodes of sleep which is getting worse - it is an issue you can discuss with your doctor.

Managing sleeplessness

If physical symptoms are a problem then tell your medical team - as nausea, pain, etc can be treated. Your doctor may sometimes prescribe short term  sleeping medication.

There are several steps that can be taken to help create the right environment for sleep - good ‘sleep hygiene’ can be something you can do for yourself, and is a useful starting point.  You can read our cancer support specialist’s blog ‘sleeplessness and bedtime’ for helpful sleep hygiene tips - but here are a few examples:-

  • A warm bath can help relax you, about an hour before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol prior to going to bed. 
  • Nutrition: many people find a snack before bed that contains some protein and a more complex carbohydrate helps. (Something like oatcakes with a nut butter on, or a slice of toast with hummus, for example). You can find more information about nutrition and sleep, in our ‘Food for Thought’ blog.
  • Try and get into a regular night routine. Preferably wait to go to bed when sleepy, and if after 20 minutes you’re still not asleep, you could get up again, and try again later.
  • A darkened room, with no technological disturbances...ipads, computers, smart phones used in the bedroom unless necessary. 
  • A notepad by the bed to write down troublesome thoughts, ‘to do ‘ lists,etc, so you can free your mind a little.
  • Try and get some daylight, (time outside if possible), this helps get the body into a natural body rhythm - some daily exercise also helps. 

You can buy 'over the counter' remedies to help with sleep, but check with your GP or pharmacist if you're on any other medications which they might interfere with. Taking them on occasional nights, rather than continuously can be more effective.

What now?

Talk to your doctor or specialist nurse about your sleep problems.

Try the sleep suggestions mentioned in our blogs and links on this page.

Learn breathing and relaxation techniques which can help ease the body and body into sleep. You could visit one of our Maggie’s Centres for ways to manage stress and anxiety including drop in relaxation sessions and some  of our centres also run sleep workshops.

Talk together in our online forums or in our physical centres which can help share your experiences and feel less alone.

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