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5 Things You Can Do to Sleep Better During Cancer Treatment

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Heather Millar - Blogs
By Heather MillarAward-winning writerJanuary 18, 2018

One of the really weird things about cancer treatment—and I’ve heard this from many, many other cancer patients—is that it makes you really, really tired AND it can make it really difficult to sleep.

Studies bear this out. Some 30 to 50 percent of cancer patients struggle with sleep, compared with only 15 percent in the general population.

When I went through chemo, I had a terrible time sleeping. I tossed and turned. Or I would drop off, but into that strange half-sleep, the kind that leaves you still tired when you wake up. I’m terrible at taking naps, so I ended up just stumbling around the house, sleep deprived.

As with chemo brain, it’s unclear if chemo insomnia is caused by the drugs, or by the stress of having cancer. But when you can’t sleep, you probably don’t much care. You’d just like to get some shut-eye.

Here are a few things that I discovered about getting sleep during chemo:

1. If you’re having trouble sleeping, tell your medical team. It’s pretty common to prescribe sleep and anti-anxiety meds to people going through chemo. Don’t be ashamed to ask. Your body is being hit with a marathon of insults; it needs sleep in order to fight your cancer. That said, be aware that sleep and anxiety meds can be addictive. It took me a couple months to wean off of mine once my active treatment ended.

2. If you can, try to stay awake during the day. Staring dumbly at the TV counts. Just keep your eyes open as much as you can during the day, and you’ll sleep better at night.

3. Keep to a regular sleep schedule if you can. Kids and pets and work can intrude, but if at all possible, got to bed at around the same time each night. You will train your body to that schedule, and hopefully you’ll be able to drop off more easily.

4. Don’t eat or exercise for two hours before bedtime. This is standard insomnia advice. Believe me, during the chemo days, I never felt tempted to exercise before bed! But I did have to make a conscious effort not to eat after dinner.

5. Keep a sleep diary. Again, this is standard insomnia advice. But keeping a diary will help you to see patterns. Maybe something else, like pain or nausea, is keeping you from sleeping. If that’s the case, tell your docs.

I put these into practice, and by the time I was about halfway through chemo, I was sleeping pretty well. I hope the same for you.

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About the Author
Heather Millar

Heather Millar is an award-winning freelance magazine writer and author with wide-ranging interests including health, science, the environment, geopolitics, technology, parenting, and Asian affairs. 

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