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How Cancer Affects Sleep

Posted by Geoff Beaty on 23 July 2021
How Cancer Affects Sleep
A chronic lack of sleep comes with a whole host of problems that affect our well-being decreased cognitive function and memory, a greater propensity for depression, anxiety, and stress, and increased risk for a slew of medical afflictions, including hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

Science also shows that loss of sleep or poor sleep could adversely affect your immune system, leaving you susceptible to colds and other illnesses. Quality sleep is a natural immune booster, helping our focus, mood and ability to manage stress. 

Although cancer does not directly affect sleep, the side effects of cancer treatment both physical and emotionalcan interfere with getting a good night's sleep.

Cancer may affect sleep directly and indirectly, from the disease itself or indirectly through treatments, medication effects, stress, and anxiety.

"The effects of a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments can be taxing and affect patients in very different ways, but it's not uncommon for these effects to manifest themselves through sleep issues like insomnia or hypersomnia," explains Kathleen Sacharian, CRNP, nurse practitioner for the Cancer Survivorship Program.

Cancer patients are often affected by physical impact of treatments or medications such as pain, hot flashes, and night sweats, which can affect their sleep. This is often worsened by the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis, which can lead to depression, fear, stress, or anxiety. Hospitalizations, sleeping during the day, and altered sleep patterns also can impact sleep. All of these issues combined often lead to less sleep and, for patients who are sleeping, poorer quality sleep.

"We do encourage our patients who are having trouble sleeping to talk to us and to see how we can help improve their sleep," says Sacharian. "This can be working with them to treat underlying symptoms that contribute to poor sleep, or discussing relaxation techniques. There are a number of modalities that we employ to work with them to try and improve their sleep experience, because it is so important for healing."

Better sleep for survivors

Even after cancer treatment, sleep issues can persist.

Patients who had trouble sleeping during their cancer treatment may continue struggling with sleep once their treatment is over. Some medications that are prescribed long term may also cause difficulty sleeping.

There are steps you can take to get back to a better night's sleep. 

Treat the underlying causes of symptoms you may be experiencing.

Being consistent with sleep and waking times, even on the weekends. Keep naps short (less than a hour) and earlier in the day.

Create a bedtime routine such as taking a warm bath, drinking decaffeinated tea, or by doing something relaxing that doesn't involve a computer, tablet, cell phone, or television.

Creating a positive sleep environment. Your bedroom should be cool, with dim lighting, and comfortable bedding to create an environment conducive to sleep.

Limiting your caffeine intake, especially before bed. Don't drink any caffeinated beverages at least four hours before bed.

Exercising regularly (at least a few hours prior to bedtime) for as little as 3 days a week for 30 minutes can make a difference.

If you're still having trouble after putting these changes into practice, then it is time for you to ask our help. 

Author:Geoff Beaty


  • The Institute for Functional Medicine
  • Society for Integrative Oncology
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology
  • Australian Traditional-Medicine Society
  • Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia