Overcoming Sleeping Problems after Breast Cancer Treatment

PJ Hamel Health Guide February 13, 2007
  • After months of sleeplessness following cancer treatment, it was a long haul working my way back to healthy sleep patterns. I never took drugs; I’m one of those women who tries to avoid drugs at all costs, preferring to rely instead on time being a healer, and working the mind-body connection. I have nothing against drugs (besides their high cost), and take them when required; I would never eschew antibiotics for the occasional strep throat, and six courses of chemotherapy, the most powerful drugs of all, helped save my life. But day to day, no thanks; I’ll muddle through somehow.

    Thus the behavior modification I undertook to reestablish good sleep patterns was right up my alley. It took several months, but I went from getting about 4 1/2 hours of wakeful, dreamless sleep a night, to getting 6 hours of sleep that’s filled with intense dreams, a sign of REM sleep, the most critical part of the sleep cycle. What’s my secret?

    Lots of little things. If you’re experiencing sleep problems, maybe some or all of these will work for you; maybe not. One true thing about cancer (and its side effects) is that we all experience it differently; there’s no “one size fits all.” If you can, ask your doctor about seeing a sleep specialist; if you’re not in a position for more treatment, or it’s not available, then consider some of these tips.

    The first thing my “sleep doctor” told me was, “Your bed is ONLY for sleep and sex.” Not reading, not watching TV, not chatting on the phone or cruising Cyberspace on the laptop. This was a killer for me; I love to read in bed, turning the light off as my chin finally drops onto my chest. No more: I was forced to sit in a chair and read, then quickly hightail it to the bed as soon as I felt sleepy enough. It was tough, but I stuck to the routine, and I believe it was one of the things that really helped convince my body that bed = sleep. I confess, I’ve gone back to the habit of reading in bed; but when I find myself getting into bad sleep patterns again, I revert to reading in the La-Z-Boy.

    The next thing I learned was not to lie in bed if I wasn’t sleeping. If you lie down, pull up the covers, and are suddenly not sleepy; or if you wake up in the middle of the night, eyes wide open, and can’t drop right back to sleep, get up and sit in a chair, do laundry, or have a glass of warm milk (whose tryptophans actually promote sleep naturally). Spend no more than 15 minutes awake in bed, before assuming sleep is being elusive and getting up. Again, this reminds your body that when you get into bed, YOU ARE GOING TO SLEEP.

    Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet. “Sure, my bedroom is dark and quiet.” Is it really? Or is your teenage son’s TV blaring right on the other side of the wall, and the streetlights outside the window are casting shadows on the ceiling? Ask your son to wear earphones; get Venetian blinds. Make sure your room is as dark and silent as possible. Trust me, this really makes a difference.

  • Avoid alcohol whenever possible, caffeine in the late afternoon and evening, and naps during the day. Alcohol may seem to put you to sleep, but you’ll quickly wake up; caffeine will keep you up. Daytime naps rob you of nighttime sleep.

    Make a sleep schedule, and stick to it, even on weekends. This is difficult, and can be amended once you’re sleeping better again; but the road to better sleep is built on habits, and you need to follow a 7-day-a-week routine, at least for awhile.

    Finally, exercise is good, but don’t exercise within 2 hours of going to bed. And about 20 minutes before bedtime, have a small serving of complex carbohydrates: a couple of crackers, a handful of cereal, anything to give your stomach enough to work on during the night that it won’t be waking you up with hunger pangs.

    That’s it. Sleeping poorly? Give these tips a try. And have a great night!