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Sleeping Well with Cancer

Science proves that sleep is an important part of a healthy life.  During cancer treatment, getting the appropriate quality and quantity of sleep can be challenging, but it is essential for recovery and to build strength [i].


Sleep and Health

Currently in the United States, sleep disorders affect around 50-70 million adults [ii].  Scientific research continues to uncover the profound benefits that good quality sleep can have.  Getting good sleep may decrease the risk for obesity in both adolescents and adults.  To explain this phenomenon, it may be that fewer hours of quality sleep time may have an impact on the hunger hormones and hunger signaling cues, leading to overeating and obesity [iii] [iv].  Furthermore, the overall risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes increases with consistent lack of sleep.  Those who get the appropriate amount of healthy sleep can recover physically and mentally from the day, which is especially important when battling cancer.


Sleep and Cancer

Almost half of all newly diagnosed cancer patients experience sleep disturbances, defined as the inability to sleep as a result of stress or anxiety for more than 2 weeks.  Fragmented sleep, reduced total sleep time, and trouble drifting off to sleep are all forms of disturbances.  These can be caused by the prescribed medications, inflammatory markers, existential factors such as changing life routines, and the disease itself [v].  Sleep is an important part of the healing process, whether it be psychological or physical.  Strategies to help facilitate healthy sleep are important during and after cancer treatment.


Tips to Sleep Well

Here are some strategies that may help [vi]:

Open communication with the healthcare team may prove beneficial.

  • Unfortunately, sleep is an overlooked topic during medical appointments. Since the healthcare team won’t necessarily ask, it may be beneficial to approach the topic yourself with the team. Since sleep can change as a result of hormonal and medicinal causes, the clinicians may be able to provide additional coping strategies.

Include your support system. 

  • Having a supporting team is helpful. They can help to remind you to practice healthy habits that support good sleep, and they can provide a hand with other daily responsibilities to reduce overall stress levels.

Try exercise, yoga and mindfulness meditation [vii].

  • Exercise may improve sleep quality but start where you are now and don’t overdo it! Just moving is a good first step.  When ready, find a time that works for you, and try body weight exercises at home.  These may include wall sits and body squats.  Simple movements that work your muscles can play a large part in better sleep.  However, avoid exercise 2-4 hours prior to bedtime, as this can hinder your efforts at getting to sleep [viii].

Build a sleep fortress. 

  • 1 hour before bed, dim the lights, and turn the phone to sleep mode.

Have a routine.

  • Consistency is important. Going to bed at the same time each evening will help your body and mind settle in for the night. 


In Summary

Good sleep is important for those with cancer.  Because of the unique circumstances that cancer patients experience during their care, sleep time can take a crucial hit in both quality and quantity.  However, all hope is not lost.  There are smart daily strategies that can be put into practice to help overcome the challenges and alleviate some of the mental and physical strains experienced during cancer treatment.


[i] John Hopkins Newsletter. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org downloaded 2/15/18
[ii] Sleep and sleep disorder statistics. American Sleep Association.  Accessed at: https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/sleep-statistics/
[iii] Shochat T; Cohen-Zion M; Tzischinsky O. Functional consequences of inadequate sleep in adolescents: a systematic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2014. V18(1). Pp75-87.
[iv] Reutrakul S; Cauter EV. Sleep influences on obesity, insulin resistance, and risk of type 2 diabetes. Metabolism. (2018). Pp1-39
[v] Howell D; Oliver TK; Keller-Olaman S; Davidson JR; etal. Sleep disturbance in adult with cancer: a systematic review of evidence for best practices in assessment and management for clinical practice. Annals of Oncology. (2014). V25(4) Pp791-800.
[vi] Zeichner SB; Zeichner RL; Gogineni K; Shatil S; Ioachimescu O. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, mindfulness, and yoga in patients with breast cancer with sleep disturbance: a literature review. Breast Cancer: Basic and Clinical Research. (2017) V11. Pp1-11
[vii] Kathleen D. Morse PhD, LCSW-R, ACHP-SW, Richard J. Gralla MD, Judy J. Petersen RN & Lisa M. Rosen SCM (2014) Preferences for Cancer Support Group Topics and Group Satisfaction Among Patients and Caregivers. Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 32:1, 112-123, DOI:10.1080/07347332.2013.856058.
[viii] Kovacevic A; Mavros Y; Heisz J; Fiatarone Singh MA. The effect of resistance exercise on sleep: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Sleep Medicine Reviews. 2017. Pp 1-17
Kathi Morse

Dr. Kathi Morse is a licensed clinical social worker in New York State, having earned her PhD from New York University Silver School of Social Work. Her goal is to work to improve the quality of life of all her clients, ultimately helping them find the resources they need to live a good life and to understand their rights according to the law. She has worked with children, adolescents & adults living with chronic disease and is advanced certified in Hospice and Palliative Care. She has recently presented a number of workshops on topics including How to have a Serious Communication, How to ask the Questions No One Wants to Ask but Should, Staying Psychologically Healthy, and Caregivers and the Responsibilities to Themselves as Well as to the Individual they are Caring For. Dr. Morse always looks for ways to both receive and provide quality education.

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