Tips to manage insomnia when you have cancer!

Tips to manage insomnia when you have cancer!

Having a serious physical illness such as cancer and various complications associated with it such as pain, long term hospitalization, stress and fear of side effects of cancer treatment especially chemotherapy can contribute to sleep disruption or insomnia in patients.

Insomnia is the most common occurrence in patients diagnosed with cancer, but it can also affect the lives of patients receiving cancer treatment or those who have survived. While insomnia may diminish in weeks and months after cancer treatment, it may remain for a longer time after diagnosis and in cancer survivors, thus adversely affecting quality of life of patients.

This problem, if left untreated can significantly affect the body function and mental health leading to compromised ability to fight infections, persistent inflammation, stress, mood disturbances and cognitive decline. Aside from this, insomnia can worsen other cancer related symptoms such as pain, fatigue, tiredness, feelings of anxiety, and depression.

Despite the scope of this problem and dangers it poses, it has received less attention. Both patients and the health care team focus on controlling cancer and avoid insomnia as a side effect of treatment. Therefore, it becomes essential to learn about insomnia than hope it simply goes away on its own.

Let’s discuss about insomnia in detail while focusing on 5 major tips to cope cancer induced insomnia:

What is insomnia?

Insomnia occurs when a patient has difficulty falling asleep or you wake up multiple times or you wake up early in the morning and are unable to sleep after that. Common insomnia symptoms include not feeling well rested, fatigue, tiredness, daytime sleepiness, irritability, difficulty paying attention and remembering.

According to International Classification of Sleep Disorders, any person with difficulty sleeping with a ratio of total sleep time to time spent in bed less than 85% is considered as suffering from insomnia.

What causes insomnia?

It can be caused due to biochemical changes associated with tumor growth, coexisting medical conditions such as obesity, emotional distress, symptoms of cancer and its treatments, stressful sleeping environment, poor lifestyle habits, erratic work hours, night shifts, excessive screen time, and having a disturbed sleep routine.

Who is at risk of developing insomnia?

Many other factors put you at greater risk of insomnia such as:

  • Family or personal history of sleeping disorders
  • Advanced age and female gender
  • Excess time spent in bed
  • Certain medications
  • Long term hospitalization
  • Chemo or radiotherapy
  • Pain, nausea, vomiting and hot flashes

5 major tips to cope cancer induced insomnia

A good night's sleep is very essential for healing both your mind and body. The National Institute of Health recommends 7-8 hours of sleep each night for adults to stay well-rested.

Therefore, it is important to address sleep disturbances and insomnia in cancer patients, considering its potential consequences on the patient's health and stamina pre and post treatment. Below are the 5 major tips to cope cancer induced insomnia:

#1 Practice good sleep hygiene

There are many things you can do to build a healthy sleeping routine such as:

  • Going to bed and waking up same time in the night and morning respectively
  • Make your bedroom dark, quiet and cool
  • Take a warm bath and listen to soothing music while sleeping
  • Use a comfortable bed mattress and pillows for full support
  • Avoid afternoon naps and use of mobile phone within 1-2 hours of sleeping
  • Always use earplugs or sleep mask
  • Move any clocks out of sight of your bed

#2 Consider medical interventions

Certain medications can also be used to manage your insomnia. It includes use of benzodiazepines, anti-anxiety and hypnotic medicines such as Zolpidem, Eszopiclone, Doxepin, Suvorexant, Ramelteon and Zaleplon.

These medications can be used with good sleep practices to induce quality sleep but are associated with risk of side effects, and dependence, if used for long term. Therefore, it is essential to use these medications only under the supervision of a health professional.

#3 Try relaxation therapy

Along with various medical interventions, several complementary or relaxation therapies can be used to reduce pain and other symptoms of cancer such as fatigue, low energy levels and tiredness.

The National Cancer Institute has also recommended the evaluation of sleep disturbances and evidence based treatment such as CBT in cancer survivors suffering from chronic insomnia. The effective types of complementary therapies used in cancer patients are muscle relaxation, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), visualization, meditation, hypnosis, and yoga.

#4 Maintain a healthy sleep environment

A peaceful bedtime routine helps to let go of day stress and induces quality sleep. Small changes to your sleep environment can bring a major difference in your quality of sleep. Below are some tips to maintain healthy sleep environment:

  • Keep your sleeping area quiet and use soothing music to mask disturbing noise
  • Use the bedroom for sleep only and try to avoid eating out, watching TV and reading in bed
  • Control exposure to light and install a dim light in the hall or bathroom to move around safely
  • Avoid bright screens and late night TV within 1-2 hours of your bedtime
  • Introduce pleasant aromas in your bedroom such as lavender scent which calms and helps to induce sleep

#5 Improve your daily lifestyle

Your lifestyle and daily eating habits plays an essential role in how well you sleep during the night. Below are some tips which will help to get a better sleep:

  • Eat a healthy and nutritious diet
  • Avoid eating spicy foods, or sugary items close to bedtime and switch to healthy choices such as milk, yogurt, or low sugar cereal
  • Try to eat dinner in the evening, and avoid heavy foods before bed
  • Drink enough fluids before bedtime to avoid waking from thirst but don’t drink too much as it may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night
  • Be physically active and exercise at least 3 hours before bed
  • Practice some breathing exercises while sleeping
  • Limit caffeine intake and avoid smoking and alcohol, especially 4-8 hours prior to bedtime


Insomnia and sleep problems are quite common in cancer patients. Following a healthy lifestyle with a good sleeping routine and habits can surely make a difference. Even research suggests that practicing good sleep hygiene can help to maximize the hours of sleep and improve sleep patterns, especially in patients whose sleep is affected by insomnia, jet lag or long working hours.

Aforementioned tips are easier to include and will surely improve your chances of achieving restful sleep. But if you are still facing sleeping difficulties and have trouble staying asleep, it may indicate the presence of other disorders such as sleep apnea and depression and you should consult a sleep specialist.

Also, Learn about ways to deal with cancer related depression.

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