Sleep and cancer

Cancer and treatment can cause problems with your normal sleeping patterns.

The information on this page will help you find out more about how sleep can be affected by cancer, ways to manage and how Maggie's can help.

How can sleep be affected

Sleep provides rest and recovery which is important for both our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Sleeplessness (insomnia) can be when you:

  • 51ɫAPP it difficult to fall asleep
  • Wake up several times during the night
  • Wake up very early and can't get back to sleep

Whilst the occasional lost night’s sleep feels manageable, ongoing sleeplessness can affect quality of life, and can lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression and poor concentration. 

You may feel that it’s normal not to be sleeping well, and be trying to put up with it but there are ways to manage it so you should let your doctor know.

Causes of sleep disturbances

Sleep disturbances when you have cancer are very common. They can also be complicated and it may be a combination of issues that are causing your difficulty sleeping.

Causes of a broken night’s sleep include:

  • The cancer itself
  • Side effects of treatments
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Drugs  
  • Hormones
  • Other medical conditions
  • Sleeping environment

You may also have a history of sleep problems that began before you were diagnosed with cancer that have got worse.

Managing sleeplessness

It may feel like making sleep better is impossible, out of your control and an additional burden on top of everything else. There are ways to make things easier.

Talk to your healthcare team

Problems with sleep are often physical, which your healthcare team can help with, so it's important to let them know.

Certain drugs like steroids, being in pain, feeling sick or needing to the get up and use the toilet are common issues that can affect sleep. 

Your doctor may be able to review your medication and how your symptoms are managed to make sleep easier.

Create the best environment for sleep

Making changes to your sleeping environment can help to re-establish natural rhythms alongside changes to drug regimes. 

There are several things you can try to help create the right environment for sleep:

  • Have a warm bath before bed can help you to relax
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime
  • Go to bed when you're sleepy. If after 20 minutes you’re still not asleep, you could get up again, and try again later
  • A dark room
  • Avoid looking at screens at bedtime. If possible, remove devices like phones, tablets and computers from the bedroom
  • A notepad by the bed to write down troublesome thoughts to free your mind
  • If noise from others is a issue like partners, children or pets – consider changes to sleeping arrangements while you re-establish normal sleeping patterns
  • Eating a snack before bed that contains some protein and a more complex carbohydrate can help. Something like oatcakes with nut butter or a slice of toast with hummus
  • Fresh air. Getting outside during the daytime can help restablish natural body rhythms and encourage sleep
  • Regular gentle exercise during the day

Reducing stress and anxiety

There is a close relationship between sleep and how you're feeling and one can often affect the other.

Learning different ways to manage your emotions and reduce your stress can help to improve your sleep pattern.

Breathing and relaxation techniques can also help ease the body and body into sleep.

Sleeping medication

Your doctor may prescribe a short course of sleeping tablets to re-establish a normal sleeping pattern.

You can also buy over the counter remedies to help with sleep, but check with your GP or pharmacist if you're on any other medications which they might interfere with.

How Maggie's can help

We're here to help you with your sleep.

Get in touch with us at your nearest Maggie's to talk things over with a cancer support specialist and find out more about ways to manage sleep issues.

We also run relaxation sessions and some of our centres run sleep workshops.

Our benefits advisors are here to talk through any money worries that may be adding to your sleeplessness.

Last review: Dec 2021 | Next review: Dec 2022

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