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Sleep disorders: understanding the symptoms and ways to manage them

The bedroom of a cancer survivor who dealt with sleep issues like insomnia during her cancer treatments. By seeing a therapist through the after cancer care, this patient started sleeping better.

Many cancer patients experience sleep disturbances but don't worry, there are ways to improve your sleep. You may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or you might have the total opposite - oversleeping. Other problems are possible, such as sleep apnea (your breathing stops for a few moments while you sleep) and sleep-related movement disorders, such as restless leg syndrome. However, the most common sleep disorder that cancer patients experience is insomnia, i.e., difficulty falling or staying asleep.

It's important to take sleep disorders seriously. When you sleep poorly, it can be even more challenging to cope with cancer. Poor sleep can have a negative impact on mood, pain, and fatigue. It can weaken the immune system and interfere with healing during treatment. It can also lead to memory problems and difficulty thinking clearly.

What causes sleep disorders?

Cancer or its treatments can disrupt your sleep patterns. When staying in the hospital, a place that is often noisy, busy, and different from home, you may also have a harder time sleeping. If you experience anxiety, stress, depression, or pain, your sleep problems are likely to worsen.

Various side effects and symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, diarrhea, constipation, or flu-like symptoms, can lead to or worsen sleep disorders. If you wake up more frequently at night to urinate or experience night sweats or hot flashes, your sleep may not be as restorative as it should be.

Certain medications such as hormone replacements, steroids, sedatives, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants can also affect your sleep.

What do sleep disorders feel like?

The symptoms of sleep disorders may vary, but they include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep

  • Waking up feeling tired or not feeling rested after sleeping

  • Feeling very drowsy during the day

  • Irregular breathing during sleep

  • Moving more during sleep

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling irritable

How to treat sleep disorders?

We will try to find the source of your sleep disorder (e.g., if it is a side effect of medication prescribed in your treatment plan) and suggest ways to manage the source of the sleep problem. If no underlying cause can be identified, our team will focus on the sleep problem itself. Treatment depends on the type of sleep disorder you experience and may include the following options:

Medications – Your healthcare team may prescribe medications that will help you sleep or relieve symptoms that interfere with your sleep in the short term.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy – This is a treatment specifically designed for insomnia, administered by a therapist with specialized training. This treatment can help you recognize the thoughts and behaviors that cause or aggravate your sleep problems and replace them with habits that promote better sleep. This technique is as effective as prescription drugs but has the advantage of not causing side effects.

Sleep Aids – If your breathing is interrupted while you sleep, a special device may help you breathe and enjoy better quality sleep.

Easy tips to try a home

You can also try certain things to achieve better sleep, including:

  • Get up at the same time every day, regardless of how long you slept the night before. It is tempting to sleep in after a bad night, but this can make it even harder to fall asleep in the evening.

  • Engage in physical activity at least once a day, preferably in the morning or afternoon rather than in the evening.

  • If you nap during the day, do so before 3 p.m. and try to limit it to a maximum of 30 minutes.

  • Don't keep your worries and fears to yourself. Talk to someone during the day or write them down. This will help you manage them, and you will have a clearer mind when it's time to fall asleep at night.

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages 6 to 8 hours before bedtime.

  • Avoid sugary and alcoholic beverages late at night.

  • Avoid using your cell phone, tablet, or computer and watching TV at least 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime. The light emitted by these devices can affect the sleep hormones your body produces.

  • Before going to bed, do something pleasant and relaxing under dim lighting like reading a book or taking a hot bath.

  • Keep your room dark, cool, and comfortable. Use a white noise machine to mask sounds that could disturb your sleep.

  • Go to bed only when you are sleepy. If you can't fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something pleasant and relaxing under dim lighting. Return to bed when you are sleepy.

  • To help you sleep, try meditative or relaxation exercises, deep breathing, or listening to soothing music.


Get started with The After Cancer to improve your sleep


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