When going through cancer treatment, catching some Z’s is more important than ever—but it’s not always easy.
Do you find yourself tossing and turning between the sheets? We all know that a solid night of sleep sets the next day up for success through restoration of our physical and mental health. But the impact that quality sleep (or lack thereof) has on the cancer journey specifically is even more crucial.
Treatment introduces a host of sleep troubles due to hospital stays, medication side effects and added stress. But at the same time, rest is exactly what you need when fighting cancer— damaged cells and DNA are repaired at night when we sleep.
“One of the main reasons why restful slumber is so important is its ability to affect hormonal regulation,” says Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, M.D. “Lack of sleep leads to increased cortisol and estrogen, both of which increase the risks of breast cancer in women. Lack of sleep also leads to a lower level of melatonin, which has antioxidant properties for preventing cancer.”
Oncologist Akshar Patel delves even deeper into the importance of sleep for warriors, noting the following components and their impact on preventing or coping with cancer:
- Sleep Duration: Generally, people who sleep less than six hours per night have an increased cancer risk. Short sleep duration increases the risk of colon polyps that can turn into cancer. Even long sleep duration (more than nine hours) can be one of the factors for liver or breast cancer development.
- Sleep Quality: Poor sleep has been linked to increased discomfort, longer hospital stays and a higher risk of complications in women having breast cancer surgery. Another study found that men with interrupted sleep cycles had a higher chance of prostate cancer relapse.
- Circadian Rhythm: Circadian rhythm is the body’s intrinsic clock that runs 24/7. Its disruption can lead to the development of tumor cells as it is responsible for cell growth and division in our body. Cancer treatments frequently target particular proteins, enzymes, or receptors on the cell surface, and the majority of these are influenced by circadian timing.
- Sleep Disorder: Studies have shown that sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can create conditions to develop tumor cells. Some forms of chemotherapy and radiation therapy have the best impact when oxygen levels in tumor tissue are high. Therefore, hypoxia from OSA may prevent these therapies from working efficiently.
So how can you escape the vicious cycle of needing quality sleep but feeling prevented from getting it?
“It’s important to maximize the benefits from nonpharmacological interventions before prescribing another pill, which often has side effects and can interact with oncology medications,” says Dr. Danielle Kelvas, M.D.
According to Kelvas, current guidelines show that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction exercises can really help. You can also take steps to improve your sleep hygiene firsthand.
Ensure your sleeping environment is dark, cool and quiet (or switch on that noise machine if you want some background sound!). Avoid caffeine or alcohol for at least five hours before bedtime and try to limit screen time for an hour or two. If you find that you cannot fall asleep 15 minutes after settling into bed, get up and move around a bit before coming back and trying again.
Ultimately, everyone’s sleep plan is different, and you may have to test out different methods before landing on a routine that works for you. If you find you’re still not getting the quality sleep you need, discuss your medications with your care team to see if there’s room for adjustments. Sweet dreams!