Breast Cancer and Sleep Disorders

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • About a year after I finished cancer treatment, I fell into a pattern of wakefulness that began to interfere with my life. I never had problems going to sleep, but staying there? Another issue. I’d go to bed at 10 p.m., awaken at 11, go back to sleep at midnight, wake up at 2 a.m., and again at 4 a.m… In the morning, I felt like I’d been working all night, and some days I was barely able to drag myself out of bed. Even on days when I felt pretty good, I found myself practically falling asleep at my desk by 2 p.m.; and that’s not good, when you’re working a full-time job.

    During one of my regular visits to the hospital, I saw a flier asking for volunteers to participate in an experimental sleep study. Whoa, that’s for me, I thought. Not only might I possibly get some relief from my increasingly long nights of the worry and stress that accompanied my sleeplessness, the study even paid participants: $100. A win-win! I wrote down the e-mail address, and quickly signed up.

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    At our first meeting, Rain, a sleep researcher, explained that we were going to change my bad habits. First order of business: Identify how long I actually slept at night. After a week of keeping a diary, I returned, and Rain noted that I slept about 4 1/2 hours a night.

    “OK,” she said. “That’s what your body is used to, at this point, so that’ s what we’re going to give it: 4 1/2 hours of unbroken sleep.” How will we do that, I wondered; Rain quickly enlightened me. ‘What time do you like to get up?” she asked. “Oh, how about 6 a.m.,” I proposed. “OK, then you can’t go to bed till 1:30 a.m. I don’t care what you do–housework, read, watch TV, sit and stare the wall–do NOT get into bed until 1:30 a.m.”

    WOW. I am definitely not a night-owl, and 1:30 in the morning sounds like the middle of the night to me, not bedtime. I struggled mightily to carry out Rain’s program for me; sitting, walking around, playing the piano, climbing up and down stairs… and she was right, if I could stay awake till 1:30 a.m., I could sleep soundly till 5 or 6 a.m., a huge improvement over the series of nightly catnaps I’d been taking.

    This program of behavior modification continued for a couple of months, and every week Rain pushed my bedtime back 30 minutes, till eventually I was going to bed at a much more reasonable (for me) 10 or 11 p.m. I never did sleep a full eight hours, but you know what? I never have. I’ve always required less sleep than almost anyone I know.

    Getting six hours of sleep, interrupted only by a couple of quick trips to the bathroom, did wonders for me. I felt rested, energetic, and ready to tackle a full days’ worth of activities. Behavior modification: thumbs up!

    Along with this gradual lengthening of sleep time, Rain gave me a number of things to do to promote sleepiness as bedtime neared. Everything was based on me behaving in certain set ways in order to form new habits, habits that my body would then recognize as a signal that it was time for bed.

  • Next time, I’ll share some of those “sleep secrets.”

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Published On: February 13, 2007