Alaska Sleep Education Center

Managing Insomnia During Cancer Treatment

Posted by Emma Williams on Oct 13, 2020 7:54:00 AM

Insomnia often begins as soon as a cancer diagnosis is received. The stress associated with the diagnosis, along with questions about the future, can lead to long, sleepless nights. Even when treatment is in progress – whether headway is being made or if it seems like there is little hope for a cure – insomnia plagues cancer patients and their family members alike. 

You’re not alone. The National Cancer Institute mentions that up to fifty percent of patients undergoing cancer treatment also suffer from insomnia and other sleep difficulties. Making matters worse, insomnia can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other problems.

While it is vital to discuss the way insomnia is affecting you with your healthcare providers, there are certain strategies that can help you find better sleep. 

Family reducing stress during cancer treatment.

Let others help you. 

Others might be offering help with everyday chores, transportation, or something else that might make life a bit easier right now, and it’s best to accept the assistance even though your first inclination might be to decline. With more support and less on your plate, you might find it easier to sleep.

The fact is, people love to help. Some organizations even offer freebies for cancer patients – there are plenty of gifts to help, including things like house cleaning, help with transportation, fun virtual experiences to boost your mood, and more. As the old saying goes, accepting help gives someone else the opportunity to be helpful. As you heal, you can offer help to others in return. 

  • Ask your caregiver about local and online resources that bring professionals, survivors, advocates, and patients together to share helpful information.
  • Consider joining support groups that help cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers alike. 

Set a long-term sleep schedule.

Our bodies and brains like predictable schedules. Decide on a wake up and sleep time that you can stick with for the long run. It might take some time to get used to waking up at the same time every morning (yes, weekends, too!) and sticking to a firm bedtime might be difficult at first. Hang in there, because this trick can really pay off.

  • If this is impossible due to shift work, consider asking for a different schedule for the duration of your cancer treatment. Insomnia doesn’t help your productivity or your mood, so a schedule modification is likely to benefit your employer as much as it helps you. 

Set the thermostat a little lower.

Your body has a “cool” trick in store for you: When  you lower the temperature in your bedroom so the thermostat stays between 65 and 72 degrees, you’re setting the stage for the kind of deep, restful sleep  you so desperately need right now. 

  • Go gradual if you’re afraid of being too chilly, and if you’re someone who loves warmth, pile on the blankets! Your body doesn’t have to be cold; instead, you’ll benefit from the cool air you’re taking into your lungs. 
  • Take a hot shower or bath before bed if you’re not interested in lowering the thermostat. As your body cools down, your brain relaxes and you may find it easier to fall asleep.
  • Wear socks if your feet get cold – or even if they seem comfortable! Cold feet make it difficult to fall asleep and if you’ve lost weight during cancer treatment, insomnia might be worsened by chilly toes. Get the warmest, fluffiest socks you can find; they’re likely to make a difference. 

Reduce your exposure to light – especially the blue kind.

Our favorite electronic devices provide us with entertainment and a welcome respite from our worries. At the same time, though, they’re fooling our brains into believing that we ought to be awake. It’s a very good idea to reduce your screen time throughout the day. This might not be your idea of great news; in fact, it can be tough to change viewing and social media habits, particularly when they’re helping us cope.   

  • Try turning off your devices about an hour before bedtime. Implement a comforting bedtime routine to ease the transition and replace your phone and tablet. Read a book, have a cup of decaffeinated tea, listen to soft music, and enjoy a warm bath or shower with soothing aromatherapy products.
  • Use nighttime mode or get a blue light filter if you find it impossible to power down, or if you frequently use your device when you wake in the middle of the night. 
  • Reduce light exposure in general during the last few hours of the day. Try to cut back on TV time, use a nightlight in the bathroom instead of turning on bright overhead lights, and keep your bedroom dark. 

Try white noise or soothing sleep soundtracks.

White noise from a fan or a white noise machine can help you find sleep when insomnia strikes. If your mind is running in circles as you think about your condition, your cancer treatment, and your future, soothing soundtracks such as sleep meditations, sleep hypnosis recordings, or bedtime stories for grownups can be just interesting enough to capture your attention while simultaneously suggesting that sleep is possible. 

  • Flip your device on its face or use a black screen – even YouTube has the option for screen off when you have a paid subscription, and some content creators offer black screens on their nighttime soundtracks. 

Get some exercise during the day.

Unless your healthcare provider has advised you not to exercise during cancer treatments, insomnia can be greatly reduced by the inclusion of activity during your waking hours. Exercise doesn’t have to be intense to help. You can try:

  • Stretching
  • Yoga
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Light weight lifting 
  • Cycling 
  • Elliptical 

Any enjoyable activity that activates your muscles is likely to help. It’s worth noting that the American Cancer Society recommends that cancer patients do a minimum of either 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, gradually working up to 300 minutes as possible. The same recommendations apply to cancer survivors, and family members who are supporting you will benefit, too. 

Ask for help with pain, digestive upset, and other physical issues.

Pain and cancer treatment often go hand in hand, and insomnia is often part of the larger picture. Since discomfort can make it very difficult to fall asleep and stay that way, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider about pain control options. 

  • If pain medication doesn’t help, consider asking for medication to help with sleep. 
  • When nausea is part of the big picture, ask your doctor for advice. They may be able to help you solve the issue.
  • Don’t take over-the-counter sleep or pain remedies unless they’ve been approved by your physician. 

Consider cognitive behavioral therapy.

Habits – including thought patterns – aren’t always easy to change on your own. When cancer treatment and insomnia combine, a cognitive behavioral therapist may be able to help you recognize what’s happening and change your approach, so that you find it easier to eliminate the worries that keep you wide-awake when  you’d rather be resting. 

See a sleep specialist.

Sometimes it’s impossible to sleep well, even when you’ve tried every tip in the book and modified your bedtime routine. A sleep specialist who is familiar with the connection between cancer treatment and insomnia can help. Sleep studies, either at home or in a laboratory setting, can help determine exactly what’s happening and help with pinpointing a solution. 

  • If you can’t leave home, you may be able to work with a sleep specialist who offers telemedicine. 

Final thoughts

Deep sleep helps your entire body heal; it helps you regenerate skin and other tissues, and it has a positive impact on your immune system. While changing habits and seeking professional help might seem challenging at first, the benefits make these efforts worthwhile. 

Try as many of these sleep tips as you can. With time, effort, and perhaps a little bit of care from sleep experts, you’ll find it easier to deal with insomnia despite the discomfort and worry that can accompany cancer treatments.  

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, contact us at Alaska Sleep Clinic today to see how our board-certified sleep specialists can help you.

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Topics: insomnia, CPAP, treatment, cancer

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