How does insomnia affect cancer patients?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. From anxiety and pain to worry caused by financial or travel issues or changes at work, several factors may lead to chronic sleep disturbances. Sleep is important in restoring and rebuilding the body’s cells and tissues, which is especially important during cancer treatment. People experiencing insomnia have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Waking up often during the night
  • Having trouble going back to sleep
  • Not feeling rested in the morning or feeling tired during the day
  • Restlessness or anxiety as bedtime approaches

Insomnia may lead to fatigue, memory and concentration problems, and mood disturbances, and can exacerbate other cancer-related complications, such as pain, fatigue, depression or anxiety. Insomnia may also impact patients’ ability to cope with cancer or cause feelings of isolation.

How likely are cancer patients to experience insomnia?

Cancer patients are twice as likely as people without cancer to experience insomnia. An article in the journal Cancer Medicine estimated 75 percent of cancer patients and cancer survivors are affected by sleep disorders. Insomnia in cancer patients often occurs in combination with depression or anxiety. Sleep disturbances are also linked to the hormones cortisol and melatonin. When those hormone levels are abnormal, they may suppress the immune system and limit the body’s ability to fight cancer.

How may integrative cancer help?

Several supportive care services may help alleviate cancer-related insomnia with comprehensive, holistic approaches to the evaluation and treatment of sleep disorders. These include:

Behavioral health

Managing insomnia often requires treating its underlying causes. Our behavioral health team recognizes how emotional, mental, social and behavioral factors can directly affect health. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), mental health and allied professionals help patients and caregivers respond to a cancer diagnosis and treatment regimen in empowering and stress-reducing ways, to improve overall well-being. Techniques may include relaxation therapies that lower blood pressure and calm the nerves, or guided imagery, which uses positive mental images and focused breathing to increase physical and emotional comfort. Cancer patients have often found such techniques help with physical discomfort and stress. They may also help support the immune system. Other practices designed to reduce stress, a potential cause of insomnia, may also prove beneficial.

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Oncology rehabilitation

This treatment approach involves a wide range of therapies designed to help patients build strength and endurance, regain independence, reduce stress and maintain the energy needed to participate in daily activities. During cancer treatments, patients may feel tired but can’t sleep, often because their bodies are out of sync, which disrupts equilibrium. Physical and occupational therapy, in the form of exercise, can provide an adrenaline boost and hormonal changes to increase energy levels so the body can rest when it’s supposed to. Therapists work to educate patients on safe and appropriate therapies, designing programs so that the amount and intensity of the exercise meet their needs and abilities.

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Spiritual support

Spirituality may be an integral part of the symptom management process. Research has suggested a connection between spirituality and healing. When it comes to treating insomnia, spiritual practices such as prayer and spiritual music can be used to promote sleep for patients suffering from insomnia. These techniques may ease the anxiety caused by thoughts that can race through patients’ minds to return them to a state of calm that can then be channeled into a meditative state.

Learn more about spiritual support