Why cancer can cause problems with sleeping – and practical tips for making life better
Having difficulty sleeping is common when you are having treatment for cancer.
This guide includes practical tips from the Live Better With cancer community, to help make it easier for you to relax and get a good night’s rest.
In this guide:
Why does cancer cause sleeplessness?
Can’t sleep? You are not alone. People with cancer often have trouble sleeping (insomnia), for a number of different reasons. You may find it hard to fall asleep, or difficult to stay asleep for any length of time.
It might be that you are experiencing pain, or side effects from your cancer treatment, like night sweats or itchy skin. You might also be feeling stressed or anxious about your condition.
Sleep is very important in helping your body to restore itself and recover from treatment – as well as helping you to deal with the day ahead.
The good news is, there are lots of things you can do to help yourself to get comfortable, relaxed and ready for sleep.
Making yourself more comfortable at night
Dealing with pain
If you’re having trouble sleeping, it may be because your tumour or treatment area is causing you pain or discomfort. Using a microwaveable lavender body wrap can help to soothe the symptoms and help you to feel more relaxed.
If treatment has made your skin sore, itchy or irritated, applying a skin oil or intense moisturising cream before bed can make things more comfortable and allow your skin to hydrate overnight. The Live Better With community recommend using calendula cream to help tackle dryness and inflammation.
It’s also important to make sure your bed is as comfortable as possible. If you have to spend a lot of time lying down, this can be a challenge. Using cushions or pillows can help to reduce any pressure, and a mattress tilter can allow you to find a more comfortable sleeping position.
“I wouldn’t have believed that buying a mattress tilter would make so much difference to the quality of my sleep.” Pam B, Live Better With community member
Bedding and night clothes
Choose comfortable nightwear and bedding. Cotton and bamboo are ideal, as they are naturally soft and moisture absorbent.
The right temperature
Make sure your bedroom is a comfortable temperature for sleeping. If you’re suffering from hot flashes or night sweats, try popping a cooling gel mat inside the top of your pillow or mattress – these are filled a gel which naturally stays below room temperature, helping you to have a more comfortable night. For an extra cool boost, you can pop it in the fridge before bed.
Some medications used in cancer treatment, such as steroids, can also keep you awake. Others like antihistamines might make you feel sleepy during the day, which can cause problems later on when it’s time to sleep.
You may be able to reduce these effects by taking your medication at a different time, such as earlier in the day or last thing at night. Talk to your doctor for advice.
Having a proper routine
When you’re undergoing cancer treatment, your normal sleeping habits can be interrupted. It’s important to try and stick to as much of a routine as possible.
You may find that your cancer treatment makes you more tired, and you are more likely to nap during the day. While napping can give you a temporary boost, you should try to restrict naps to certain times of the day, and try to go to bed and wake up at a regular time each day.
This will help your body to maintain a more normal sleep rhythm.
If possible, take some light exercise during the day, such as some gentle yoga or a short walk. See the Live Better With Guide to Doing Exercise here.
Relaxing before bed
Creating a calm and peaceful atmosphere is also important in helping to get a good night’s sleep.
Making your room as dark as possible will help your body to wind down ready for sleep. Many cancer patients recommend using blackout curtains or wearing some soft ear plugs and a sleep mask to help block out any lights and sounds, and promote a deeper, longer and more restful sleep. This is particularly helpful if you have to stay in hospital overnight.
Being relaxed will make it easier to fall asleep, and to stay asleep for longer. There are lots of different ways to help yourself relax and unwind before bed.
- Try colouring – many people find that focusing on a simple, creative task like colouring can help the body and mind to relax and focus on the present moment. The Live Better With community recommend the Can’t sleep adult colouring book.
“I started colouring when having treatment for cancer and found it very calming and still do. Recommend this therapy.” Avril, Live Better With community member
- Read a good book. Reading can be very relaxing, and many people find it a good way to unwind before sleep. Studies have also shown that watching TV or using a screen too close to bedtime can interfere with melatonin, the hormone which controls your body’s sleep cycle.
- Have a warm, milky drink. It’s best to avoid tea, coffee or alcohol, cigarettes, or spicy or sugary foods. Instead opt for a glass of warm milk and a light snack to relax you and help settle your stomach for the night.
- Enjoy a bath. Having a bath before bed can really help to relax your body and mind. Add in some naturally relaxing lavender essential oils or bath salts to complete the experience.
“A hot aromatherapy bath helps prepare my body for trying to get to sleep, and the essential oils help me relax – especially the lavender aroma.” Becks, Live Better With community member
- Burn a scented candle. Aromatic candles can fill the room with a soft, natural ambience and a relaxing scent. The Live Better With community recommend the Starlytes lavender blossom candle, which smells delicious and is made of soy to ensure clean, safe burning.
- Put on a CD. Listening to some gentle music or a meditation CD can be very relaxing.
- Try a sleep spray. Using a relaxing sleep spray on your pillow can also help to calm you and prepare your body for sleep.
Dealing with worry
Many people who are being treated for cancer find that they suffer from stress or anxiety. This can stop them from sleeping falling asleep, or cause them to wake up during the night. Remember, it’s perfectly natural to feel this way, and there are things you can do to help.
Yoga and mindfulness techniques
If you’re feeling worried or anxious, you can try using relaxation techniques, such as yoga and breathing exercises.
“I used yoga, meditation and breathing exercises to help counter my stress and anxiety.” Live Better With community member
Mindfulness can also be a useful technique, which helps you to focus more on the moment in hand and less on your worries. The Live Better With community recommends The little book of mindfulness, which is full of advice and tips which you can dip into. If you prefer a guided technique, try a CD like Mindfulness for Beginners.
There are many books on the subject of insomnia. Try ‘This book will make you sleep‘, which uses behavioural therapy techniques to help break the cycle of insomnia, or ‘The effortless sleep method‘ which looks at the reasons behind your sleeplessness and offers advice on improving sleep patterns.
“Having just had my first brush with insomnia I cannot say how relieved I am to have come across this gem of a book.“ Yasmin, Live Better With community member
Natural sleep remedies
Essential oils also offer an effective, natural way of destressing. The Live Better With community recommends Badger night night and sleep balm, which contain a blend of oils known to help clear and soothe the mind:
“Helps relaxation in a time of stress and constant thoughts, and helped me to sleep” Live Better With community member
You could also try using a steam aromatherapy diffuser. This will gently diffuse natural essential oils into the air, helping to reduce stress and anxiety and encouraging sleep.
Talk about it
And finally, remember, it’s good to talk. If you are feeling worried or stressed, or have any concerns about your treatment, it’s important to talk to somebody. This could be a friend or family member, or if you prefer a doctor or counsellor.
Share your tips
Do you have tips for sleeping better with cancer? If so, we’d love to hear about them, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.