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Insomnia is the term or diagnosis used for people who have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for long periods of time. 

There are many different causes of insomnia. For people living with cancer, anxiety, stress, medications and treatment can all lead to insomnia if not dealt with carefully.

There are many different reasons someone living with cancer might find it difficult to fall or stay. For example, if the cancer itself is causing pain or discomfort somewhere in your body, this might keep you awake at times. Additionally, if the tumour sits on another organ or body part this can cause you to stay awake. Tumours pressing on the bladder, for example, may lead you to feel like you need to urinate throughout the night.

Stress and anxiety play a huge part in healthy sleep patterns. A cancer diagnosis can be very overwhelming, and you may find yourself with information overload. Unmanaged stress can lead to difficulty falling asleep and waking up suddenly throughout the evening.

Medications can, directly and indirectly, cause you stay awake. Stimulating medications such as steroids, which are often prescribed alongside chemotherapy, can lead to insomnia if not taken early enough in the day, or taken in large doses. Other medications, such as antihistamines, may cause you to become drowsy, leading to napping during in the day. Too much daytime sleep can disrupt nighttime sleeping patterns. 

Managing insomnia will firstly require an understanding of why you cannot fall asleep.

If your insomnia is related to anxiety or stress, speaking to a healthcare professional such as a psychologist or counsellor can help improve sleep. There are books available to help improve mindfulness and meditation; both of which have been shown to clear and relax the mind. Being relaxed will make it easier to fall asleep, and stay asleep for longer periods of time.

If you are on a medication that causes you to become drowsy, increasing exercise, or taking them in the evening (if possible), may help reduce napping during the day. Conversely, if your medication is keeping you awake, taking it early in the day will help manage insomnia.

Keep your room dark

Having a dark room can tell your body that it is night time, and helps trick your body into knowing that it is time to fall asleep. Blackout curtains or wearing sleep masks are a great way to darken a room.

Keep your room quiet

Bedrooms, especially those facing streets or in noisy areas, can be distracting and wake you up. Windows can be installed that are double-glazed, which helps reduce noise. However, if you do not have double-glazed windows, using foam earbuds can be very effective in reducing noise.

Only sleep in your bedroom

It can be very tempting to use your bedroom as a place to watch TV, study, work or eat. But these activities can be stimulating, and cause your brain to wake up instead of relaxing. By making your room your sanctuary, and a place where you only sleep, you will find it easier to relax (not to mention, you won't find crumbs in your bed!).

Keep to a routine

Avoiding napping during the day can be difficult when undergoing cancer treatment. Cancer can cause you to be regularly fatigued and exhausted. However, sticking to a schedule for when you nap, relax and sleep will help your body adjust when it should rest. Going to bed at a reasonable time, and waking up early, will provide you with enough hours of sleep and inform your body when it needs to sleep. 

If you do find yourself needing a nap or rest every day, keep it around the same time (and not too late in the afternoon).

Exercise 

Exercise is a great way to help combat insomnia, as it helps you to relax and clear your mind. Exercise during cancer treatment may seem daunting, particularly if you are low on energy or not feeling so well. However, many recent studies have concluded that people undergoing cancer treatment do benefit from mild to moderate exercise at regular intervals. Exercise has been shown to improve mood and alleviate depression, increase appetite, reduce fatigue and improve sleep patterns. 

When exercising with cancer, it is important not to injure yourself or overdo it. Low-impact exercises, such as walking, yoga, pilates or swimming, are ideal. However, depending on what type of treatment and cancer diagnosis you have, it may be advised that you do not perform specific types of exercise. For example, for many people undergoing radiotherapy, it is not appropriate for them to go swimming. Similarly, heavy lifting is ill-advised for anyone who has recently undergone surgery.

Why is sleep important for people with cancer?

A healthy sleeping pattern will benefit you both mentally and physically, and it has a great impact on your overall health and safety. Sleeping allows your body to repair, recover and prepare for the next day. 

Throughout the years, sleep studies have been conducted identifying the advantages of a good night's sleep. Trends and themes from the results have nearly always suggested that those who have a healthy sleeping pattern are:

  • less prone to depression
  • less at risk of mental health concerns
  • at a decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension
  • slimmer than those who lack sleep 
  • able to retain and process information quicker

Quality vs quantity of sleep

Remember with sleep, it's not just quantity of sleep but also the quality of your sleep that is important. This is specifically for people experiencing cancer insomnia. Ideally, adults should get 7-8 hours of sleep a night that is of high quality. High quality sleep means deep sleep - the state of sleep where your body si able to repair itself, relax, and prepare for the day ahead. 

It can be difficult trying to fall or stay asleep, but if you stick to a regular pattern, try some relaxation techniques and keep distractions to a minimum, you should find that your insomnia improves.

If you do find your inability to fall asleep is affecting your day-to-day life, your doctor may be able to prescribe you medication to help you fall asleep.