The Importance of Sleep for Cancer Patients

Why sleep should be a main priority for those battling cancer

Experiencing trouble sleeping is common in both adults and children. There are many contributing factors as to why it’s difficult to get the sleep we want and need. Perhaps our sleep environment is not conducive, something is weighing on us mentally, or our children are awake at night. Sleep apnea or insomnia could also be playing a role. In addition to other protective factors, like proper nutrition and regular exercise, sleep is extremely important for our overall health. When something else is going on with our body that affects our health, such as a cancer diagnosis, it’s doubly as important in those cases.

About one third to one half of cancer patients report sleep disturbances. Many report having insomnia and feeling as though it is difficult to sleep at all. The percentage of cancer patients who report feeling this way is almost double the general population. For cancer patients, there are unfortunately a slew of reasons at play that are contributing and making sleep very hard to come by. At various points in time, getting the rest your body needs may prove difficult. Understanding the reasons sleep may be nonexistent is the first step in moving towards a solution. Next, implementing strategies to support restful sleep will increase your body’s energy and its ability to heal. Sleep heals us. Many people focus on the cancer treatment itself, followed by things that are known to make us stronger, such as eating protein and going for walks. Often sleep is overlooked as a crucial part of a cancer patients overall treatment plan.

So, why is it that cancer patients struggle to sleep in the first place? There are different reasons and every patient will react differently, physically and emotionally, to the journey of battling cancer. Some common problems include:

Stress/ anxiety about their diagnosis

It’s normal for our mind to race when we are worried or concerned. Throughout different stages of treatment, patients have a variety of stressors that may affect them such as fear of the future, telling their friends and family their diagnosis, as well as financial, work-related and/ or relationship concerns as well.

Interrupted sleep environments

Often when someone is getting cancer treatment, friends and family may offer to come to their home and help. While that is a kind gesture, it can also be problematic as sometimes it’s hard to get adequate sleep if there are guests in one’s home. Keeping this in mind and setting healthy boundaries is important for the patient and whomever they share their home with.

Symptoms, such as nausea and headaches, from treatment

Depending on the intensity of the symptoms and their duration, asking your Doctor/ care team for support on managing those adverse side effects will prove to be helpful. They may have some tips and ideas for how to specifically combat the symptoms, allowing more time for restful sleep.

Pain in one’s body from the cancer

Most cancer patients report the aches and pains in their body interrupt their ability to fall and stay asleep. Stretching, yoga, staying warm/ hydrated, medication, and other forms of pain management/ medication can be used. The more this overall pain is managed, the more the patient will be able to rest and heal.

Excessive sleepiness during the day

Cancer takes a major toll on one’s body. During the day, especially if the person has not slept well at night, they may be extremely fatigued. This pattern throws off the body’s normal sleep cycles and its circadian rhythm. It may be difficult for patients to regain their nighttime sleep in these scenarios.

 

There are a variety of reasons why sleep is vital if you are in any stage of cancer treatment. Many of the drugs used to treat cancer lower and weaken one’s immune system. Chemotherapy, a common cancer treatment, can affect the immune system for quite some time, even after the patient is done with those treatments. According to The National Sleep Foundation, sleep is a major component when it comes to boosting the immune system. “Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation, effectively creating an immune response. Cytokines are both produced and released during sleep, causing a double whammy if you skimp on shut-eye.”

Targeting inflammation is also especially important for cancer patients, seeing as the body can become inflamed from the cancer itself and/ or the commonly used treatments for it. Reducing the inflammation in the body helps its ability to fight off infection and heal.

Besides building up the immune system, being well rested is also important because it improves our mood and decision-making skills. There are many decisions that need to be made by the patient and family, such as length of treatment, treatments they are willing to try, treatments they are opposed to, etc. Being well-rested helps people to be more energized and have a clearer, calmer ground to make these difficult choices from. Extreme fatigue can lead to (or contribute to pre-existing) mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. In order to make sound decisions for one’s physical, mental, and emotional health, sleep is an important factor that should always be prioritized.

If someone in your life is suffering from cancer, it’s common to bring a meal or offer a ride to an appointment. These are wonderful ways to support that person. In addition, perhaps consider offering to watch their kids in the afternoons so they can take a nap or take household chores and errands off their plate to lower their stress and hopefully improve their ability to gain extra consistent sleep.

If you are a cancer patient do not be afraid to advocate to the people around you so you can best meet your sleep needs. This could mean asking your Doctor about symptoms that affect your sleep or asking your partner to help you get as much sleep at home as possible. That time while you are resting is crucial for your body as it fights the cancer, as well as your overall health too.