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Living well with cancer: Improving Sleep

By September 13, 2023No Comments


A cancer diagnosis is a life-altering event that brings about a multitude of challenges, both physical and emotional. One often overlooked but critical aspect of living with cancer is the impact it can have on sleep. Sleep issues are common among cancer patients, affecting their overall well-being and quality of life. In this article, we will explore the relationship between cancer and sleep problems, the reasons behind these issues, and strategies for managing them effectively.


The Complex Connection: Cancer and Sleep

Cancer and sleep have a complex and bidirectional relationship. On one hand, the stress and anxiety that often accompany a cancer diagnosis can lead to sleep disturbances such as insomnia. On the other hand, the physical effects of cancer, including pain, medication side effects, and treatment-related symptoms, can also disrupt sleep patterns. This creates a vicious cycle where poor sleep can worsen cancer-related symptoms and vice versa.


Common Sleep Issues in Cancer Patients

  • Insomnia: Insomnia is one of the most prevalent sleep issues among cancer patients. It manifests as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restorative sleep. The psychological and emotional burden of cancer can contribute to racing thoughts and anxiety, making it challenging to achieve a state of relaxation necessary for sleep.
  • Fatigue: Cancer-related fatigue is pervasive and can be overwhelming. Paradoxically, cancer patients often report feeling excessively tired during the day but find it difficult to sleep at night. This fatigue can be exacerbated by the physical and emotional toll of cancer and its treatments.
  • Pain: Many cancer patients experience pain, which can be debilitating and make it impossible to find a comfortable sleeping position. Pain medications may help, but they can also have side effects that impact sleep quality.
  • Medication Side Effects: Some cancer treatments involve medications that disrupt normal sleep patterns. These side effects may include night sweats, hot flashes, or vivid dreams.
  • Mood Swings and Anxiety: Steroid medications can induce mood swings and anxiety, both of which can interfere with relaxation and sleep. It’s not uncommon for patients to feel irritable or agitated while on steroids, further exacerbating sleep problems.
  • Increased Energy: Some cancer patients on steroids report feeling more energized, which can lead to a decreased need for sleep or difficulty winding down in the evening.
  • Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS): RLS is a neurological disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move the legs, often accompanied by uncomfortable sensations. It is common among cancer patients and can severely disrupt sleep.


Strategies for Managing Sleep Issues

  • Communication is Key: Open and honest communication with your healthcare team is crucial. Inform them of your sleep problems so they can adjust your treatment plan or prescribe medications to alleviate symptoms.
  • Establish a Sleep Routine: Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help regulate your body’s internal clock. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Limit Naps throughout the day: If you feel the need to nap, do so earlier in the day rather than later. Napping in the late afternoon or evening can make it harder to fall asleep at night. In addition, if you must take a nap during the day, keep it short and sweet. Aim for 20-30 minutes to avoid falling into a deep sleep that can interfere with nighttime rest.
  • Create a Comfortable Sleep Environment: Ensure your bedroom is conducive to sleep. Keep the room cool, dark, and quiet. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows.
  • Manage Stress and Anxiety: Engage in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to reduce stress and anxiety. Counselling or support groups can also provide emotional support.
  • Pain Management: Discuss pain management strategies with your healthcare provider. Finding the right balance between pain relief and side effects that disrupt sleep is essential.
  • Limit Stimulants: Reduce your intake of caffeine and nicotine, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime. These substances can interfere with sleep.
  • Stay Active: Gentle, regular exercise can improve sleep quality. Consult with your healthcare provider to determine the best exercise routine for your condition.
  • Sleep Medications: In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe sleep medications, but these should be used cautiously and under their supervision.


Living with cancer is undoubtedly challenging, and sleep issues only add to the burden. However, understanding the connection between cancer and sleep problems and implementing effective strategies can greatly improve your quality of life during this difficult journey. Remember that you are not alone, and seeking support from healthcare professionals, friends, and family can make a significant difference in managing sleep issues while living with cancer.



For more information, please visit the Cancer Councils Improving Sleep | Emotions & Cancer | Cancer Council NSW.

Please contact our Nurses on 07 5445 5794 or [email protected] if you have any questions.

The information in this document is based on resources from the Cancer Council Queensland. All information provided by Bloomhill is based on research and best practice guidelines. Our model of care utilizes the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) domains of wellness along with available clinical evidence.  Always consult your care team regarding matters that affect your health. This is a guide intended for information only.