Sleep problems (sometimes called sleep disturbances or sleep-wake disturbances) can happen for many reasons, and people with cancer often have an increased risk for them.
Lab tests, such as a sleep study, might help find what might be causing your sleep problem. But most of the time, diagnosing a sleep problem depends on the patient reporting it.
Your doctor may give you a form or checklist to fill out about your sleep habits and problems. If not, here are some questions to think about when tracking your sleep patterns and writing down notes for your health care team:
Finding out the best way to manage a sleep problem can begin with how you describe it to your health care team. It's best to keep a sleep diary. This is useful for tracking your sleep patterns and writing down the specific problems you're having will help. Someone who lives with you can often help describe what happens when your sleep is disturbed.
Because sleep problems in people with cancer usually have more than one cause, doctors, nurses, sleep specialists, social workers, therapists, pharmacists, dietitians and nutritionists, and a number of other professionals might be involved in helping manage them. You might hear this referred to as having a sleep hygiene plan. The best sleep hygiene plan for you might be different for someone else. Sometimes the plan includes some testing, lifestyle changes, medication changes, or techniques and therapies that help with relaxation.
If relaxing seems to be difficult, you might be able to learn about different relaxation techniques that can help. These are often called cognitive behavioral interventions. They might include breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, music, hypnosis, or guided imagery that can help you relax physically and mentally. These can help you learn ways that let you wind down, stay calm, fall asleep, stay asleep, and go back to sleep if you awaken during the night.
Exercise as a way to promote better sleep has been studied in people with cancer, and might be helpful.
It's important to talk to your health care team about whether these might be helpful for your situation, to find professionals who can help you learn these techniques.
Insomnia might be managed by adjusting lifestyle, activities, or medications.
Some medication or sleep aids can be used temporarily, whether they are prescribed by your doctor or over-the counter. But it's important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking any medication or supplement that claims to be helpful for sleep and relaxation. More research is needed to understand how these medications can better help cancer patients, and if they are safe to take. Possible interactions may occur with these because of other medications, vitamins, or herbals you take. Some sleep aids your doctor might recommend or prescribe include:
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) might be managed with different treatment or therapy options. Your doctor may check your iron or vitamin levels with a blood test to see if adding iron, B12, or folate in your diet may help. A therapist may help you with daily stretching exercises to help you relax your muscles. If needed, some common medicines your doctor might recommend or prescribe for RLS include:
Your doctor may order a sleep study to diagnose sleep apnea. This study may require you to stay overnight at a sleep center. The sleep specialist at the center will monitor different sleep functions like heart rate, breathing, airflow, and oxygen blood levels.
A continuous positive airway pressure devise (CPAP) mask may be prescribed as a treatment. The mask is placed on your face, secured with elastic, and attaches to a machine that gently blows air to keep your throat and airway open while you sleep. It is usually recommended this mask be used every night during sleep.
Changes in daily diet or exercise may also help with sleep apnea. A dietitian, your doctor, or sleep specialist can help you start a plan that works for you.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Palliative care. Version 2.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/palliative.pdf on October 2, 2019.
National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Survivorship: Sleep disorders. Version 2.2019. Accessed at https://www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/survivorship.pdf on January 3, 2020.
Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Symptom interventions: Sleep-wake disturbances. Accessed at https://www.ons.org/pep/sleep-wake-disturbances on October 2, 2019.
Last Revised: January 6, 2020
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