What Are Sleep Problems?

Sleep problems can be common in cancer patients. You might hear these called sleep disturbances or sleep-wake disturbances. They can affect a person's ability to do everyday activities. Any change in usual sleeping habits can affect you in different ways.

It's important to remember that everyone is different. But sleep is key to having good physical and mental health, and for our mood and well-being. Because of this, having a good sleep routine or good sleep hygiene is important.

For most adults, averaging at least seven hours of sleep every night is recommended. But, your age, stage in life, home and work life, and stress, along with non-cancer related conditions can affect sleep. People might describe sleep problems as having insomnia or sleep deprivation, but there are things that can help.

For people with cancer, common types of sleep problems include:

  • Feeling overly weak and more tired than usual, or feeling the need to rest and sleep more (fatigue).
  • Having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep (insomnia).
  • Getting too much sleep which might affect your activities during the day.
  • Taking too many naps during the day which might affect your sleep at night.
  • Things that don't allow good sleep at night, such as being hot or cold, needing to use the bathroom, sleep-walking, nightmares, or sleep terrors.

Sometimes changes in sleep are temporary, while others or may last several months to years after cancer treatment. This can lead to having lower energy levels and can affect tasks at home, work, or school. It can also affect your enjoyment of social activities, friends, family, or hobbies.

It's important to report sleep problems and talk to your health care team about ways to manage more consistent sleep.

What causes sleep problems?

Cancer and its treatment

For people with cancer, some reasons for changes in usual sleeping habits or sleeping problems include:

Insomnia

When you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep it is called insomnia. It can last for a night, a few days or weeks, several months or longer. Temporary or short periods of insomnia, lasting less than three months, is called acute insomnia. When insomnia lasts for long periods of time, it can be more serious and may require trying different ways to manage it. There can be several causes for insomnia, such as depression, anxiety, different medications, drinking alcohol or caffeine, or using tobacco. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage insomnia.

Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition that can be uncomfortable and interrupt your sleep. It causes the urge to move your legs when you're trying to rest or sleep. Sometimes your legs can also feel itchy or irritated, often causing jerking movements that keep you awake. RLS usually happens more during the evening hours. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage RLS.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is also called obstructive sleep apnea. Apnea is a short pause in your breathing pattern that can sometimes last as long as ten seconds. It can be mild to serious, depending on how often the episodes happen. Sleep apnea might happen simply because airway or throat muscles become very relaxed. But sometimes there is an obstruction, or blockage that causes the breathing pattern to change.

Certain risk factors for sleep apnea are: sleep position, neck size, an unusual or change in the placement of your chin or jaw, tobacco or alcohol use, or family or genetic history. Many people with sleep apnea snore and their breathing patterns can wake them up them during the night. Sometimes this interrupted sleep pattern causes tiredness or sleepiness during the day.

Although this disruption in your breathing pattern only lasts several seconds, it can cause serious problems if it happens often. It can lead to low oxygen levels, high blood pressure (hypertension), heart conditions, or mood and memory changes. Talk to your doctor about tests to find sleep apnea and how to manage it.

Lifestyle habits

Other factors that can raise the risk for sleep problems could be related to lifestyle, environment, and habits. Not getting enough daily physical activity, being around lots of noise, taking longer naps, falling asleep outside the bedroom, watching long hours of television or having long hours of other types of screen time, using tobacco products, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and not taking in enough nutrients can all affect sleep.

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.

Abrahm, JL.  Managing other distressing problems.  In a Physician's Guide to Pain and Symptom Management in Cancer Patients.  Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press;2014:476-478.

Erickson JM, Berger AM.  Sleep-wake disturbances. In Brown CG, ed.  A Guide to Oncology Symptom Management. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2015:623-647.

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.

 

References

Abrahm, JL.  Managing other distressing problems.  In a Physician's Guide to Pain and Symptom Management in Cancer Patients.  Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press;2014:476-478.

Erickson JM, Berger AM.  Sleep-wake disturbances. In Brown CG, ed.  A Guide to Oncology Symptom Management. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2015:623-647.

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: February 1, 2020

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.