When you’re living with cancer, it’s common to have some difficulty sleeping. This might be because of pain or discomfort from the cancer, the side effects of treatment, or anxiety about your cancer. Here we look at some common misconceptions - the facts and fiction - about cancer and insomnia and what you can do to help cope.


What is insomnia and why does it affect people living with cancer?

Insomnia, or difficulty sleeping, is a common problem for many people living with cancer.

Sometimes the cancer itself can cause pain (for example, pressure coming from a tumour), which makes it difficult to sleep. The side effects of cancer treatments can also affect your sleep - including night sweats, nerve pain (neuropathy), sore or itchy skin, or nausea and vomiting. Some cancer-related medications, such as steroids, can also interfere with normal sleeping.

Meanwhile, staying in a hospital environment overnight can also be very disruptive. Finally, you may have worries about your cancer, which can impact on your sleep.

Common misconceptions about cancer and insomnia

‘Insomnia’ is not being able to get to sleep

While having trouble getting to sleep at night is one common form of cancer-related insomnia, it can also manifest itself in other ways.

For example, you may find you have problems with waking up in the early hours and being unable to go back to sleep - because of anxiety, for example - or you may wake up regularly throughout the night because of the side effects of treatment - for example, if you’re experiencing night sweats or have toileting issues.

You may also feel unrested when you get up in the morning. Cancer patients in particular are much more likely to suffer from fatigue (extreme tiredness), which can have a significant impact on their day to day life.

You can ‘catch up’ on lost sleep

When you’re dealing with cancer, it’s very important to rest. However, while you might hope to catch up on any hours of lost sleep by staying in bed for longer, it can actually be counterproductive. Similarly, while a short nap can be helpful for giving you a quick energy boost, it isn’t long enough to go into a deep sleep, which is when your body heals and repairs itself. It’s more helpful to stick to a regular routine and limit naps and daytime sleeping as much as you can, to avoid interfering with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

Doing exercise will help you sleep

A lack of exercise can be another reason for cancer-related insomnia. When you’re living with cancer, you may find that you’re less able to exercise regularly, and this can impact on your sleep at night.

It’s true that doing some gentle exercise, such as a short walk around the block, or some yoga stretches, can help to make your body feel more naturally tired. However, it’s important to think about when and how you are exercising. It’s particularly important to avoid doing any exercise (especially more strenuous activities) in the hours leading up to bedtime, as this can actually stop you from getting to sleep!

You can read the Live Better With Guide to Cancer and Exercise here.

A nightcap will help you sleep better

Alcohol can sometimes make it easier to drop off, but it will not stop you from waking up in the night, or help you to get the deep and refreshing your body needs to help with recovery. So while it may be tempting to have that wee dram before bed, it’s best to avoid alcohol and caffeine altogether in the hours leading up to bedtime, and opt instead for a calming herbal tea or hot chocolate. (Please note that it is advised that alcohol should be avoided throughout duration of any cancer treatment.)

It’s also a good idea to steer away from spicy foods or heavy meals, as these can also make it difficult to sleep well.

Using your phone can help you relax

Nowadays phones and tablets play a key role in our lives, and many of us wouldn’t be without them. However, while it may feel natural to reach for your phone on a sleepless night, blue screens are believed to have a significant impact on our ability to get to sleep, as they interfere with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. It’s best to steer clear of any blue screens for at least two hours before bedtime. Try reading a good book instead!

What can you do when you can't sleep?    

Move to a quiet spot

Many experts now advise that if you can’t sleep, rather than tossing and turning in bed, if possible it’s best to get out of bed and do something relaxing for a while, such as sitting on the sofa and reading a book, or listening to some calming music - just make sure it’s nothing too exciting!

Get into a good routine

One of the best ways to help encourage sleep is to get into a good routine. This includes going to bed and getting up at similar times each day. Try to establish a winding down period before bed: this might include having a relaxing milky drink, and a soothing bath to relax your body and mind - perhaps with some lavender essential oils. The Live Better With community also recommend using a sleep balm to help you relax and drift off.

Make sure you’re comfortable

If you’re suffering from pain, discomfort or the side effects of cancer treatment, the good news is there are plenty of things that can help, including special cushions and pillows, soothing creams cooling gel mats, body wraps, and comfy bamboo bedding and nightclothes.

You can read the Live Better With Guide to Being Comfortable here.

Create the right environment for sleeping

To help encourage sleep, make sure your bedroom is a calm and relaxing space, and that it’s a comfortable temperature. Many people find that blackout curtains can help to create a more natural sleeping environment.

If you’re staying in hospital, using soft earplugs and a comfortable sleep mask can help to block out any unwanted lights and noises.

Practise relaxation techniques

If you’re feeling anxious or stressed about your cancer, doing some meditation or deep breathing, or using an aromatherapy diffuser can help you to relax and unwind ready for sleep. Many people find that doing something relaxing, like using an adult colouring book, or writing in a diary, helps them to unwind and clear their mind at the end of the day.

It can also help to talk to a friend or family member, or join an online support forum where you can share your experiences.

You can find a range of products to help with relaxation and stress relief here.

Have you experienced problems with cancer and insomnia? Do you have any tips or advice? Why not join the Live Better With Cancer community forum.