How Cancer Can Affect Sleep

January 23, 2018

For many cancer patients and survivors, insomnia can be a troublesome side effect of living with cancer. There are many reasons why patients and survivors may have problems with sleep.

Eric Zhou, PhD, a clinical fellow at Dana-Farber and research fellow at Harvard Medical School, explains why insomnia can be linked to cancer and also discusses the best methods for getting some sleep.

Eric Zhou, PhD
Eric Zhou, PhD

“Cancer doesn’t directly cause insomnia, per se, but many consequences of the disease can trigger sleep dysfunction,” Zhou says. “We know that a cancer diagnosis, side effects of treatment, and fear of recurrence can set the stage for insomnia.”

Other precipitating factors for patients can include hospitalization, medication side effects, and chronic pain. In addition, patients who suffered from insomnia before they were diagnosed may struggle even more once they begin treatment.

Current research estimates that about half of the people going through cancer treatment report some sleep problems. Even after treatment, Zhou says approximately one in four cancer survivors continue to have trouble sleeping.

“By definition, chronic insomnia is long lasting issue. To be diagnosed, insomnia symptoms must be present for at least one month – though for many cancer survivors, it has been an issue for much longer than that,” Zhou says.

If you are experiencing insomnia, Zhou recommends that you make sure your medical provider is aware of the issue, including how it has affected your life; and that you seek a referral to a sleep specialist.

“Most people with insomnia will not tell their doctors, which is one of the biggest challenges of treating the condition,” says Zhou. “It’s important to discuss insomnia because it can be very effectively treated.”

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