Breast Cancer And Insomnia: Why It Happens And 10 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Sleep

Breast cancer patients are tired. They’re exhausted and they could use a good night’s rest, but isn’t it always the case that the one thing you need is the one thing that’s hardest to get?

Nearly 70 percent of women with breast cancer have trouble sleeping, and more than 60 percent of women with cancer are diagnosed with insomnia. Trouble sleeping is more common in breast cancer patients than in the age-matched general population and in people with other types of cancer. Causes for sleeplessness in breast cancer patients are both treatment-related and non-treatment-related.

Of course, a sleepless night now and then is normal. But insomnia, or the inability to fall or stay asleep for days on end, causes changes in mood, energy levels, and your ability to concentrate. Insomnia robs you of quality of life, and if you’re undergoing cancer treatment, that’s something you can’t afford to lose.

Photo: AdobeStock/Ozgur Coskun
Photo: AdobeStock/Ozgur Coskun

Treatment-Related Causes of Sleeplessness/Insomnia:

  • Certain chemotherapy medicines, like Ixempra, can cause insomnia
  • Targeted therapy, like Tykerb
  • Hormonal therapies
  • Certain pain medications
  • Treatments that cause menopause symptoms like sleep-disturbing hot flashes and night sweats

Non-Treatment-Related Causes of Sleeplessness/Insomnia:

  • Cancer or treatment-related pain
  • Cancer tumors themselves can negatively impact sleep
  • Fear of recurrence
  • Anxiety about treatment, outcomes, or family members
  • Worry about body image

But more important than knowing why breast cancer causes insomnia is knowing how to combat it. While medication can work in some cases, they should be considered carefully as some sleep-aids can cause addiction or interfere with treatment, and others haven’t been studied throughly. Here are 10 things to try to improve your sleep quality:

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1. Embrace a sleep schedule

It’s easy to dismiss sleep schedules as only for toddlers and pets, but the truth is that adults sleep better when they sleep on a schedule. Your body thrives on a schedule, so aim to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Yes—even on weekends!

2. Consume Thoughtfully

Spicy food, caffeine, and alcohol can all mess with your sleep. Limit these treats and consume them earlier in the day so your body has time to flush. People metabolize caffeine differently, but most cups of coffee or energy drinks will give you a boost for about four to six hours. And while alcohol can make you sleepy, it can damage sleep quality and make you wake up early.

Spicy food, or any food that bothers you, should be avoided near bedtime, as should large meals in general as they can cause nighttime heartburn.

Photo: AdobeStock/kanachaifoto
Photo: AdobeStock/kanachaifoto

3. Go For Dark

Light, especially blue light from cell phones and other electronics, helps signal to your body that it’s time to wake up and seize the day. That’s great if it’s 8am, but not when you’re trying to settle down. Cut off your exposure to electronics an hour before you go to bed—try saving that last hour for a relaxing activity like reading or meditating. Give yourself time to wind down before bed so that your brain is not still racing when you lie down.

Your brain can detect light even through your closed eyelids, so use as little light as you can during the night. Turn digital clocks away from you and don’t check your phone if you wake up too early. If you can’t avoid light, try a sleeping mask.

Photo: AdobeStock/leszekglasner
Photo: AdobeStock/leszekglasner

4. Nap With Caution

An afternoon nap can seem like the ultimate indulgence, and it would be wrong of us to recommend swearing them off forever. But be careful: daytime naps can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. If you must nap, experts agree that just 20 minutes can leave you feeling refreshed, whereas longer naps can make you groggy and steal nighttime slumber. And even power naps shouldn’t happen too late in the day.

Photo: AdobeStock/Focus Focus LTD
Photo: AdobeStock/Focus Focus LTD

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