How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep When You’re Undergoing Chemotherapy

By Heather LaBruna
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

You’re staring at the clock in the wee hours of the morning . . . again. It’s not surprising that you can’t sleep: Getting quality ZZZs can be challenging when you’re dealing with the pain of cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy, such as night sweats. Top that off with issues like stress and depression and it’s amazing you can even take a nap!

You’re not alone. People with cancer, and those undergoing chemotherapy, are at high risk of developing sleep disorders, including insomnia. These disorders can stem from the body’s reaction to cancer as well as to certain medications taken for other symptoms. A University of Rochester study showed that three-quarters of people treated with chemotherapy faced insomnia or other sleep disturbances that became chronic and interfered with their recovery.

What does missing out on sleep mean for you? Sleep gives you the strength to endure treatment and heal properly. If you don’t get enough sleep, you will not only suffer fatigue but also may experience mood swings and problems with your memory and concentration, making it more difficult to follow your treatment plan, make decisions and maintain relationships.

Fortunately, you can take measures to enhance your slumber:

  1. Talk to your oncologist. An adjustment to your regimen could help you get more ZZZs without compromising your treatment.
  2. Switch things up. If night after night of insomnia is making you dread stepping into your bedroom, try relocating to another bed or even to the living room sofa. The change of scenery can be enough to help short circuit your anticipatory anxiety and get you nodding off in a blink.
  3. Avoid clock watching. Instead of looking at the clock and thinking, “If I fall asleep right now, I can still squeeze in two hours of shut-eye,” turn your clock toward the wall to minimize frustration.
  4. Treat the root of your wakefulness. If nausea is keeping you up, ask your oncologist whether you can take an antiemetic at bedtime. Are restless legs a bother? Tell your doctor; treatment is available. Hot flashes? Lower the thermostat, wear moisture-wicking nightwear and avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. On that note, if you usually have cocktails in the evening, try skipping them or cutting back to no more than one.
  5. Think pleasant thoughts. Picture yourself relaxed in a calming place, such as lying on the beach or in the grass, watching clouds drift by.
  6. Practice good sleep hygiene. It’s hard to separate sleep and wakefulness when you have an irregular sleep–wake routine. Wake up every morning and go to sleep every night around the same time, aiming for seven to eight hours of shut-eye, and avoid daytime napping.
  7. Know your bedroom’s role. It’s for sleeping and intimacy—nothing else (no TV watching, Internet surfing, etc.). That way, you’ll become conditioned to associate the bedroom with slumber.
  8. Set a good sleep environment. Keep your bedroom quiet and relaxing. Block light with window coverings, and wear an eye mask if needed.  Decrease noise with ear plugs, a fan or a white-noise machine.
  9. Chill out. Practice meditation or yoga before bedtime. Or do something relaxing, such as reading, soaking in a tub or listening to mellow tunes.
  10. Warm it up. Wind down for the day by taking a warm shower. It will help muscles relax and decrease your body temperature, promoting sleep. When done, apply a scented lotion, such as lavender, to help further promote relaxation and signal sleep time.
  11. Wait it out. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 to 30 minutes, just lying in bed is likely to frustrate you. Instead, get up and do something relaxing, such as reading a book or watching TV, until you actually feel sleepy.
Published March 2014

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