Why does cancer make it hard to get to sleep? (Plus 6 tips for a better night’s rest)

Having treatment for cancer can have a major impact on your sleep patterns. In this post we look at why cancer can make it hard to sleep, and things you can do to help get a better night’s rest…

Many people with cancer suffer from difficulty sleeping, or insomnia.

Causes of cancer-related insomnia can include pain or discomfort from the cancer, side effects from treatment, some medications, a lack of physical activity, and stress or anxiety. However, steps can be taken to help improve sleep during cancer treatment.

How can cancer affect your sleep?

It’s very common for cancer to interrupt normal sleeping habits and interfere with your natural sleep-wake cycle.

Both the cancer itself and the treatment can cause problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up feeling tired. Some people find it very hard to drop off, or wake up in the early hours and can’t go back to sleep. Many also find that they feel extremely tired, or fatigued, during the day.

Problems with sleeping can make it more difficult for you to cope physically and emotionally with cancer treatment, and can contribute to problems with tiredness, concentration, low energy, irritability, anxiety and depression.

What causes cancer-related sleep problems?

Here are some of the main reasons people with cancer have trouble sleeping:

  • Pain and discomfort – cancer causes physical changes within the body, which can lead to insomnia and fatigue. You may also experience pain at the site of a tumour, or in an area where you’ve had surgery or other treatment such as radiotherapy
  • Side effects – some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can cause side effects which make it hard to sleep, including night sweats, nerve pain (neuropathy), sore or itchy skin, flu-like symptoms, nausea and vomiting, and needing to visit the toilet frequently
  • Medication – some medications used as part of cancer treatment, such as steroids, can make you feel wide awake, while others – like antihistamines – can make you feel drowsy, both of which can interfere with sleep patterns. You may be able to reduce the effects by taking your medication at a different time of day – talk to your doctor for advice
  • Stress and anxiety – you may have worries about your cancer, which can stop you from falling asleep or cause you to wake up in the night
  • Lack of physical activity – many cancer patients find that they exercise less when undergoing treatment, which can lead to problems with sleeping at night

How can I get a better night’s sleep with cancer?

When you’re undergoing cancer treatment, having a good sleep routine is essential. Here are some key tips to help:

1) Establish good sleeping habits

You should aim to go to bed and get up at roughly the same time each day. This will help your body to maintain a more normal sleep rhythm. Limiting your daytime naps can also help, as sleeping during the day can affect your ability to sleep at night.

It’s also a good idea to avoid using blue screens, including TVs, laptops and phones in the run-up to bedtime, as they can interfere with your body’s natural sleep patterns. Similarly, it’s best to avoid stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate, cigarettes and alcohol.

2) Create a bedtime routine

While we often concentrate on how many hours of sleep we have had, it’s important to remember that the quality of your sleep is very important. Having a good bedtime routine can help you to relax and prepare for a deeper, more restful sleep.

There are lots of things you can do to help relax your body and mind ready for sleep. Some people find it helps to have a warm drink, such as milk or chamomile tea, and a light, non-spicy snack before bed.

Reading a good book, listening to some gentle music, or enjoying a warm bath with some natural essential oils can also be a good way to unwind.

“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

3) Make yourself comfortable

If you’re suffering from pain or side effects, it’s important to get as comfortable as possible. Using a microwaveable lavender body wrap can offer soothing relief from aches and pains. If treatment has made your skin sore, itchy or irritated, applying an oil or moisturising cream before bed can help. The Live Better With community recommend calendula cream to help tackle dryness and inflammation.

Meanwhile, if you’re suffering from side effects such as night sweats, choosing comfortable nightwear and bedding can help you to keep cool and fresh. The Live Better With community recommends using bamboo pyjamas and bamboo bedding, which are naturally soft and moisture absorbent.

Using special cushions and pillows can also help to reduce any pressure points and aid a more comfortable and restful sleep.

You can read the Live Better With Guide to Being Comfortable here.

4) Make your bedroom a haven

Your bedroom should be a calm and relaxing space. Make sure that the bedroom is dark, quiet and at a comfortable temperature.

Using blackout curtains can help to simulate a more natural sleeping environment, while using  earplugs and a sleep mask can reduce any unwanted lights and noises.

The Live Better With community also recommends Badger night night and sleep balm, which contain a blend of oils to help clear and soothe the mind. Using a relaxing sleep spray on your pillow can also help you to relax before sleep.

5) Do some light exercise

Many people who are having treatment for cancer find that it can be difficult to exercise, as a result of side effects or a lack of energy. However, doing some light exercise such as yoga or walking can help you to sleep better at night. You should avoid exercising too close to bedtime.

“I love walking. It helps to keep me fit and it clears my mind when I am feeling low.” Robert, Live Better With community

You can read the Live Better With Guide to Cancer and Exercise here.

6) Deal with any worries

If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, it can be very hard to sleep properly. Many people find that practising some simple relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga and meditation, can help:

“I used yoga, meditation and breathing exercises to help counter my stress and anxiety.” Live Better With community member

It can also help to write down your worries, or talk to a close friend or family member. Online forums can also be a very useful source of advice and support, from people who have been through a similar experience.

You can see a range of products designed to help with mind matters here.

 

Being treated for cancer can play havoc with your sleeping patterns, making it difficult to get a good, refreshing night’s rest when you need it most. However, putting in place some practical measures can help to improve your sleep and give you a boost both physically and mentally.

 

Browse our Difficulty Sleeping range →

 

Have you experienced problems with cancer and sleeping? Any tips to share? For support and advice, visit the Live Better With Cancer Community forum.

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