How To Overcome Sleep Issues During Cancer Treatment

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It’s no surprise that cancer – and cancer treatment – contribute to a host of side effects ranging from hair loss to nausea. Cancer is a tough disease that transforms bodies and can leave even the strongest of patients feeling weak and defeated.

Unfortunately, cancer is also the culprit of lost and restless sleep. And understandably so, says Cynthia Ulreich, a nurse practitioner specializing in cancer care at Henry Ford Health System. Cancer patients undergo a complete overhaul of what their life once was, and it can be stressful, challenging and overwhelming.

Ulreich explains some of the reasons cancer patients suffer from a lack of sleep, and what they can do to refuel and recharge.

Why you’re not getting a good night’s rest:

  1. You’re mentally drained. Coming to terms with the fact that you have cancer is a huge mental undertaking. It can be scary – and the great unknown of what comes with a cancer diagnosis can keep you up at night. “With patients who have cancer, many of them lose sleep simply because of the diagnosis itself, and the anxiety that comes along with that,” Ulreich says. “And this isn’t uncommon – about 75 percent of cancer patients suffer some sort of sleep disturbance.”
  2. Your medications are causing restless sleep. During treatment, patients are given a variety of different medications to fight off the cancer. According to Ulreich, many of these medicines cause a decrease in the amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep patients get. REM sleep accounts for about 25 percent of a person’s nightly sleep. It first occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep, and then every 90 minutes or so thereafter. “A common side effect of the medications we give is that, while they make patients drowsy and sleepy, they don’t help patients stay asleep and get good sleep,” she says. “Even pain medications decrease the amount of REM sleep patients are able to get.”
  3. You’re having nightmares. Another side effect of the medications given during treatment, like steroids, is nightmares, which cause patients to suffer from disturbed sleeping patterns, especially if they are repeatedly waking up during the night. Cancer itself is frightening – and, just like in everyday life, the worries, stresses and fears you have while awake can manifest into not-so-pleasant dreams that can keep you tossing and turning.

What you can do to overcome sleep difficulties:

  1. Avoid taking naps. Traveling to and from appointments and moving at a slower pace than normal can feel draining. The medications given to fight cancer can also have sleep-promoting side effects, causing you to feel drowsy. Just the tremendous act of fighting cancer itself is tiring. That being said, it’s helpful to avoid taking naps, Ulreich says. If you can stay awake during the prime hours of the day, you’ll be able to fall – and stay – asleep much more easily. If you do need a nap, aim to take a 20-30 minute snooze right after lunch when your blood sugar and energy levels naturally dip. It’s also helpful to wake up no less than three hours before your bedtime so your body can easily fall asleep when it’s time to hunker down for the night.
  2. Get on a regular schedule. It can be easy to get off of a normal routine during treatment, but this habit can hinder your ability to achieve a full night’s rest. “It’s important for patients to get on a routine plan – have a time when you wake up and a time when you go to bed,” she says. “If you normally go to bed at 10 p.m., don’t fall asleep at 7 p.m. and wake up with energy at 3 a.m. It will throw off your sleep cycle and make you want to sleep when you should be awake.”
  3. Get some sunshine. By letting in the light, taking walks outside, and keeping your rooms light and bright, your body will more easily stay alert. “The more sunshine you get during the day, the more regular your circadian rhythm, and the more tired you are as the day ends,” Ulreich says. It can be difficult to get sufficient natural light if your days are spent in numerous appointments and treatment sessions, but even getting some light while in the car or taking advantage of lulls in your day to sit outside or by a window are all helpful ways to keep your body’s rhythm in balance.

Why is sleep so important?

Whether you are undergoing cancer treatment or not, sleep is essential for helping us perform daily functions, stay mentally alert and successfully navigate our days.

For patients who are in and out of doctor appointments, treatment sessions and other medical obligations, getting high quality sleep can ease anxiety and depression, and help your body heal and maintain the strength needed to get rid of the cancer.


Talk with your doctor about your sleep issues. To find a sleep disorders specialist at Henry Ford who may be able to help, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Cynthia Ulreich is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner who works with cancer patients at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Categories: FeelWell