How to Reduce Sleep Disturbances Caused by Cancer

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Sleep disturbances such as insomnia are common in those with cancer. Studies have found that more than half of cancer patients experience insomnia symptoms and this prevalence of sleep problems led researchers to investigate the best interventions for cancer-related sleep disturbances. Their findings were published in the journal Support Care Cancer.

Man having chest pain in bed.

Cancer is a risk factor for insomnia

As stated by the authors of the study, cancer itself is known to be a risk factor for insomnia. Tumors can lead to an increase in steroid production, pain, breathing difficulties, and nausea — all of which can disrupt sleep. Furthermore, cancer treatment and cancer-related medications can also make sleep more difficult.

Woman with a headache at night unable to sleep.

Other cancer-related risk factors for insomnia

Biological risk factors such as headaches, psychological and social risk factors such as hyperarousal, and the stress associated with a cancer diagnosis along with negative sleep behaviors and thoughts can also lead to insomnia symptoms. Despite these risk factors and the prevalence of sleep problems in those with cancer, the authors found that insomnia is a frequently overlooked symptom.

Tired, ill woman talking to female doctor.

The importance of insomnia screening

The authors of the study argued that screening for sleep disturbances in adults with cancer is warranted and that reducing nighttime awakenings, reducing time spent awake during the night, reducing time taken to fall asleep, reducing daytime fatigue, and increasing perceived sleep quality should be the priority for any sleep-related treatment and care.

Daughter hugging mother who has cancer.

Insomnia treatment should be personalized

The study highlighted the importance of individualizing any treatment plan based on the specific biological and psychological issues that are disturbing a cancer patient’s sleep. The authors suggested that sleep services should be incorporated as part of cancer programs to help prevent insomnia and promote and tailor good sleep hygiene before, during, and after cancer treatment.

Woman having a relaxing bath before bed.

Treating mild sleep disturbances without medication

For occasional sleep disruption that doesn’t impair daily functioning, the study recommended sleep education intervention as a first step. This involves advising individuals to keep a regular sleep schedule, go to bed only when sleepy, use the bed for sleep and sex only, get out of bed if unable to sleep, limit naps, and correct inaccurate sleep expectations.

Couple holding hands on a walk outside in the morning.

Morning light and nighttime worry

Since the hospital environment can restrict access to light, the study suggested that cancer patients actively seek light exposure soon after waking to help regulate the sleep/wake cycle. The authors also recommended allotting half an hour to problem solving, planning and addressing specific worries in the early evening to help prevent these concerns from interfering with sleep.

Man using an e-reader at night.

Evening light and a relaxing buffer zone

Exposure to a sleep-promoting and relaxing environment with reduced or dim light roughly 90 minutes before bed was also recommended. During this time, individuals should pursue relaxing and pleasant activities such as reading, meditating, doing crosswords, or listening to music or audiobooks to help them unwind before bed.

Woman comforting friend, holding hands.

Treating insomnia symptoms and insomnia syndrome

The study found cognitive behavioral interventions to be the most effective at improving sleep problems and pointed out that treatment can be self-administered or offered through trained providers in a face-to-face or online format. With that being said, the authors suggested that short-term use of sleeping pills may be required until cognitive behavioral therapy takes effect or is available.

Sleeping pills and glass of water on night stand.

When to use sleeping pills

The study suggested that short-term sleeping pill use should be considered if there is no improvement after eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy. The authors recommended that daily consumption of sleeping pills should not be pursued for more than four weeks — and that a tapering-off plan should be followed as sleep improves.

Concerned man talking to his doctor.

The importance of addressing sleep disturbances

Sleep disorders such as insomnia are common among those with cancer. We need to do a better job of assessing sleep and addressing any sleep disturbances since effective treatments not only improve sleep, but may also improve cancer outcomes. If your sleep is suffering, don’t wait for your doctor to ask you about your sleep — raise the issue right away.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.