Insomnia and Cancer Go Hand in Hand

April 21, 2020

It may feel obvious to cancer survivors and patients with cancer, but insomnia and cancer go hand in hand. Here are some tips to handle insomnia.

Sleep — we all need it, want it and many of us do not get enough of it! A well-known philosopher, the Dalai Lama, states succinctly that “sleep is the best meditation.”

However, when insomnia hits, sleep is no longer a relief because we dread going to bed. We anticipate we will lie there for hours staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning and unable to drift off into dreamland.

According to VeryWell Health, insomnia is often defined as “A sleep disorder defined by the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep or gain restful sleep for a period of time.” I feel like I do all of these since my cancer diagnosis!

Insomnia is often accompanied by depression, anxiety and other emotions affecting healing and wellness. For cancer survivors, we know when facing a horrible and potentially fatal disease, our entire lives have been turned upside down. Most of us have faced severe financial problems, which keeps us awake at night, while some of us are going bankrupt from medical bills. We are often in pain, concerned about our loved ones and indeed, angry about why all of this happened to us!

There are medical reasons for insomnia in cancer patients too. Thus, the experts suggest reading all the literature accompanying the drug you are taking. Drinking too much caffeine is a no brainer, but I did not realize drinking 8 hours before bedtime means the stimulant is still in your body. And of course, stress exacerbates everything. I honestly wonder if any of us are sleeping now that we are faced with another horrible pandemic, which has twisted our lives so cruelly.

I find it startling that many of my cancer survivor friends are also suffering from insomnia when I thought I was alone. But what can be done about it?

Most of the coping mechanisms we know, like keeping the bedroom cool, limiting caffeine before bedtime and keeping shades down to make the room dark. Some unique ideas, suggested by experts, include journaling, keeping the same bedtime rituals each evening and white noise. Some cancer centers are also recommending more innovative treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapies.

I wrote an article talking about cognitive therapy, which involves visualizing a runaway train on the tracks and changing our thought processes to derail it. With the onset of the coronavirus, I often lie awake at night and worry, so I find myself having to do this. I simply have to stop in my tracks and not let my fears run away from me, or I will never drift off to sleep.

Don’t feel like sleeplessness is inevitable and just let it go. I did this myself for several years before I finally broke down and mentioned insomnia to my oncologist. She said this was very common with cancer patients, and prescribed a nonaddictive medicine, which has been a huge help. You should discuss this possibility with your doctor since some of these medications can make you groggy and risk falling.

I was willing to take that risk, and wish I had done it sooner. We know that lack of sleep suppresses the immune system and actually harms our bodies. It is important to be able to get some sleep as part of your treatment. Besides — who wants to be cranky from not sleeping, because there are enough grumpy people in the world already!


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