Sometimes cancer patients have a hard time sleeping. Some can’t fall asleep, others can’t stay asleep, and many can’t get enough rest. This may be a problem you’ve had your whole life, or it may be new.
The causes could be anxiety, depression or just not feeling well. It may be the result of a medical condition, such as a breathing problem or side effects from medicine.
If you are not sleeping well, please talk with your doctor or nurse. You may need a referral for additional resources like the Sleep Center.
Making the most of your sleep
Here are some tips for getting the best night’s sleep possible:
- Avoid using electronic devices or watching television while in bed.
- Keep daytime naps short (less than 30 minutes).
- Limit caffeine intake and avoid nicotine.
- Exercise regularly but not within two hours of bedtime.
"I just want a good night's sleep, doctor." This is
something I hear very frequently from my cancer patients on our weekly
Insomnia is common in cancer patients as well as the general population. Chronic lack of sleep can lead to a host of medical problems, including chronic fatigue, depression, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Insomnia can be caused by a number of medical conditions, medications, stress, lifestyle and diet. Before assuming all sleep issues are due to medical conditions alone, I frequently run through the following healthy sleep hygiene list with my patients. Many make some of these adjustments, and their sleeping problems vanish.
Here's what you can do to help get a good night's sleep.
Power down. The blue light from cell phones, tablets, TV and
computer screens suppresses melatonin, which directly interferes
with sleep. So, shut off your electronic devices in the evening, and
leave them off until morning. If you just can't say no, purchase a
blue light filter to help reduce eyestrain.
Rituals. Revert to childhood. Make sure you keep a bedtime
and wake up ritual, even on the weekends. Every night around the
same time, take a bath, read a soothing book or listen to music.
Then, it's lights out.
S & S only. The bedroom is for sleep and sex only! Don't
use if for an office, a gym, a craft center or a movie theater. It
is important to associate your bed with sleep.
Cool it down. Check the temperature of your bedroom. Some
studies show that the optimum bedroom temperature should be between
65 to 72 degrees for sound sleep.
Socks. Wear socks if your feet are cold. Cold feet increase
mental arousal. Happy, warm feet mean more sleep.
Leave the room. If you cannot sleep within 5 to 10 minutes of
lying down, get out of bed and read a magazine or book that is
soothing or boring. (If you're reading on a tablet or a mobile
device, make sure to use a blue light filter. Spend time in prayer
or meditation to calm the mind. Once you feel tired again, go back
White noise. Many people are sensitive to background noise. A
good way to calm the mind and block out ambient noise is to use a
fan or white noise devices that mimic soothing sounds such as an
ocean, a rainforest, a river or a thunderstorm.
Limit your food and drink intake. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol,
chocolate or caffeine products, such as soda, coffee or tea, three
to four hours before bedtime.
Avoid naps. Keep your daytime naps to 30 minutes or less.
And, don't take a nap within several hours of bedtime.
Exercise. Try to do some form of exercise
daily. This can be as simple as an evening walk, riding a bike,
stretching, yoga or using light weights. Physical activity helps the
body to dissipate stress which enhances sleep. The American Cancer
Society recommends that cancer patients and survivors do at least
150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous
physical activity each week.
Don't smoke. Stay away from all forms of tobacco. Not only
has it been linked to several types of cancer; the nicotine in
tobacco can keep you awake.
Pull down the shades. Your bedroom should be like a cave. It
should be dark, cool and quiet. Blackout blinds, shades and fabric
can get rid of ambient light and help you sleep. Also be sure to
cover clocks or other electronic devices that emit light in your
No pain equals gain. Pain can interfere with sleep. Make sure
you talk to your doctor about the pain medicines you take. Together,
you can come up with a plan to help you sleep soundly and
- Write it out. Keep a pen and paper by your bed if you are prone to wake up and worry about the next day's events. Jot down your reminder and fall back to sleep.
Sleep is vitally important for your health. So, don't hesitate to
discuss insomnia and other sleep issues with your doctor. Sometimes a
sleep aid can be prescribed temporarily, but it generally should not
be used long term. If your sleeping issues persist, ask to be referred
to a sleep specialist or visit MD
Anderson's Sleep Center.
Pamela J. Schlembach, M.D., is associate professor of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson in The Woodlands.
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