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Don’t Let Cancer Keep You Up

Tips for Getting a Better Night’s Sleep

by Lisa K. Sprod, PhD

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Cancer and its treatment can lead to a number of shortand long-term side effects. Of those side effects, impaired sleep quality is one of the most common and most distressing, affecting up to half of all cancer survivors. People with cancer may experience impaired sleep for a number of reasons, including pain or discomfort from cancer, its treatment, or other causes, and difficulty controlling worrisome thoughts about their health, finances, or friends and family. A person’s sleep quality suffers when they find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, or when they wake up earlier than they would like. This can lead to excessive napping during the day, which subsequently may cause increased difficulty falling asleep the following night. It can become a very difficult pattern to break.

Fortunately, there are a number of recommendations for improving sleep that are fairly simple to implement. The following are tips to help you get a better night’s sleep:

  • Exercise daily, but do so at least three hours prior to going to bed. Exercise can reduce stress and promote a more restful night’s sleep. Yoga may be especially beneficial for cancer survivors. Always consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
  • Avoid stimulants, such as caffeinated coffee, tea, and soda, for at least eight hours before going to bed.
  • Avoid nicotine, which is also a stimulant.

Follow a bedtime routine that helps you relax. This may include taking a warm bath, reading a book, or listening to music.

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Dr. Lisa Sprod

  • Avoid consuming alcohol. Alcohol may make it easier for you to fall asleep, but it will also make it more difficult for you to stay asleep.
  • Avoid eating a heavy meal or consuming too much liquid before bedtime. This may lead to excessive nighttime trips to the bathroom.
  • Follow a bedtime routine that helps you relax. This may include taking a warm bath, reading a book, or listening to music.
  • Go to bed around the same time each night, and wake up at around the same time each morning, if possible.
  • Ensure that your bedroom is conducive to a restful night’s sleep and free of distractions. Do not use your computer or watch television in bed. Make sure that the temperature of your bedroom is cool but comfortable so you don’t wake up too warm or too cold during the night. Minimize disturbing noise by turning on a white-noise machine or running a fan.
  • Limit the amount of time you spend in bed not sleeping.

If these lifestyle changes alone don’t improve the quality of your sleep, keep a sleep diary. This will help identify your sleep patterns. You can share it with your therapist or physician, who will help you develop a treatment plan.

You may want to consider cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of therapy targets the thoughts and actions that can lead to disrupted sleep. Cognitive behavioral therapy sessions may include discussing your thoughts about sleep and learning relaxation techniques to reduce racing thoughts and anxiety. Researchers have found cognitive behavioral therapy to be beneficial for improving sleep in cancer survivors.

Treatment for difficulty sleeping may also include the use of over-the-counter or prescription sleep medications. However, these treatments are not without potential side effects. They should only be used under the recommendation and guidance of a physician. In addition, these types of treatments do not provide a cure for sleep problems but rather short-term relief.

If you are having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or if you are waking up too early or taking excessive naps during the day, begin making simple adjustments to your daily life, as described. These changes, combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (if needed), can bring about long-term improvement in your sleep quality.

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Dr. Lisa Sprod is an assistant professor in the School of Health and Applied Human Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2012.