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By Ackerman Cancer Center

on 01/29/2018

The Link Between Cancer Treatment and Sleep Disturbances

The American Cancer Society lists fatigue as one of the most common side effects of cancer treatment. Unfortunately, up to half of all cancer patients also experience sleep difficulties. What’s more, insomnia can persist for years after treatment.

Although it isn’t exactly clear what causes cancer-related fatigue, it may occur as a result of protein and hormone level changes in the body, cell waste accumulation due to the extra energy the body expends to repair damaged tissue, or the formation of toxic substances caused by cancer that impact normal cell function. 

Whatever the cause, the combination of fatigue and insomnia can quickly take its toll.

Managing these conditions can be a challenge but some patients find the following tips helpful:

  • Try to stay awake during the day. This doesn’t mean you have to be particularly active or productive, simply keeping your eyes open may improve sleep
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night when possible to encourage your body to adapt
  • Avoid exercise for at least two hours before bedtime and refrain from snacking during this time, too
  • Start a sleep diary to help identify patterns. Is your insomnia associated with pain or nausea? Recording this information may help identify a cause for your sleep problems
  • Talk to your cancer care team.  If problems persist, medication may be needed. Short-term sleep aids or anti-anxiety meds may be helpful in getting over the insomnia hump, but avoid long term use, as these meds are addictive

Researchers are also seeking new solutions for cancer-related insomnia. A pilot study published in the Jan.15 issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine looked at the use of bright light therapy to improve sleep efficiency.

During the study, patients were divided into two groups. The first group used a special lightbox each morning for a 30-minute session of bright white light exposure. Members of the second group were given a similar box that offered only dim light. After four weeks, the patients using the bright light therapy reported improved sleep efficiency.

If you are experiencing cancer-related insomnia or fatigue, talk with your doctor. While there is no magic solution, there are steps you can take to reduce fatigue and improve sleep.

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