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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on July 16, 2021.

Managing insomnia

Are you having trouble falling or staying asleep? Many cancer patients experience insomnia as a result of their cancer or cancer treatment. Extended hospital visits, unmanaged pain or high levels of stress are among the many factors that may affect your daily sleep habits.

Regular sleep is needed to fight infection, lower blood pressure and maintain cognitive health.

Insomnia may be frustrating and difficult to manage, but know that there are steps you may take to reduce sleepless nights.

Learn what may be causing the insomnia, and which holistic approaches you may try in addition to your care team’s recommendations.

Causes of insomnia in cancer patients

Due to the stressful nature of the news, you may experience insomnia immediately following a cancer diagnosis. Having trouble sleeping isn’t uncommon. About half of all cancer patients have sleep-related problems during treatment.

It’s important you take care of your behavioral health as you undergo treatment. Make sure you take the time to process how you’re feeling, as the lack of sleep may increase the risk of experiencing anxiety or depression.

Insomnia in cancer patients may result from:

  • Uncomfortable environment, such as the hospital
  • Disruptions during the night
  • Pain or fatigue 
  • Nausea, constipation or diarrhea 
  • Medication side effects Inactivity during the day
  • Changes in breathing
  • Co-existing medical conditions
  • Infection or postoperative complications
  • Anxiety, fear or depression

If your sleep issues persist, an assessment may be conducted to diagnose the problem and determine whether you have a sleep disorder. Diagnosis may include a physical examination, as well as a review of your health and sleep history. A sleep study, called a polysomnogram, may also be conducted.

Options for managing insomnia and improving sleep

Not being able to sleep is stressful. You may be feeling weak and fatigued. You may be napping frequently throughout the day, causing sleep disturbances at night. You may be waking more often with nightmares or because you need to use the restroom.

Insomnia may have a direct impact on your ability to enjoy daily aspects of life, such as engaging in social activities, working or spending time with family or friends. It may also negatively affect your mental health, making it that much harder to fall asleep or stay asleep.

The good news is that sleep management is possible. Below are some steps you may try if you’re experiencing insomnia.

Address your pain

Uncontrolled pain may impact many aspects of your life, including your mood, eating habits, energy levels and the ability to sleep. If you’re experiencing sleep problems as a result of pain, speak with your doctor about your pain management plan. Everyone’s plan is different.

While medications may help with the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, you want to make sure your behavioral health isn’t being negatively impacted.

Practice good habits and stay consistent

A good sleep routine may help prevent sleep deprivation. If possible, aim for seven hours of sleep every night. If you’re having trouble sleeping for this duration, you may add short naps to your day, but try not to nap for longer than 30-minute increments. The fewer sleep-wake disturbances, the better.

Adjust your bedtime preparations and environment as needed. Try these tips:

  • Turn down the lights
  • Change the room temperature
  • Add pillows
  • Dress in loose-fitting clothes

Other lifestyle habits that may help you improve your sleep include regular exercise, reducing your time in front of a screen, especially at night, and only going to bed when you’re tired.

Try to avoid caffeine a few hours before bed.

Seek professional support

When insomnia is caused by feelings of fear or anxiety, speaking with a mental health professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, behavioral health therapist or religious counselor may help you process your feelings, learn coping strategies and feel better.

De-stress

If you’re experiencing chronic insomnia, mindfulness meditation may be used as supportive care. It doesn’t require any tools and may be practiced anywhere, at any time during the day.

Relaxation therapy such as guided imagery and muscle relaxation, may also help with sleep. Free resources online offer guidance. You may also ask your therapist, sleep specialist, pharmacist or doctor about the best options for you. They may recommend other cognitive behavioral treatments, such as breathing exercises or hypnosis.

Consider sleep medicine

Your care team may recommend sleep medications, which may offer immediate relief in the short term. Before taking any sleep aids, ask your doctor about the possibility of interactions with your other medications.

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