Sleep and Cancer

Understanding the complex relationship between sleep deprivation and cancer.

By Ashley Little

The dialogue on the connection between your sleep and cancer typically focuses on the claims that long-term sleep deprivation can lead to increased risk of cancer, but the relationship is even more complex.

Those who are currently going through cancer treatment can experience disruptions in their regular sleeping patterns, and patients in recovery may experience sleep problems for years after completing treatment. In fact, the implications of cancer treatment could even cause lifelong sleep suffering.

Learn how sleep deprivation is connected to risks of cancer, why cancer patients experience difficulties sleeping, and how patients or those in recovery can work to improve their sleep quality.

Cancer woman with headscarf sleeping on sofa, child in background

Does Lack of Sleep Cause Cancer?

Sleep deprivation is commonly associated with increased risk of developing cancer, though many don’t understand what actually links the two. When you dig into the important biological functions that happen during our sleeping hours, it begins to make sense how a chronic lack of sleep could begin to cause issues in the body.

When one experiences chronic sleep deprivation, they become prone to chronic inflammation and build a resistance to insulin. Chronic inflammation has been associated with many types of cancer, and insulin resistance is a progenitor to diabetes as your cells lose the ability to take up glucose from your blood. Both inflammation and insulin resistance can contribute to DNA damage and lead to risk of cancer.

Other common connections between sleep deprivation and cancer are seen in those with circadian rhythm disorders. When the body’s biological clock is disrupted, other biological functions are altered. A particular case in which this is likely is for those who work the night shift and suffer from shift work sleep disorder.

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Shift workers invert the natural sleeping pattern and circadian rhythm for humans. While the body is expecting to be sleeping, shift workers are exposed to bright lights which alters and suppresses the typical production levels of melatonin. This suppression has been shown to weaken the immune system and accelerate the growth of cancers in animal studies with rodents, suggesting that this is the explanation for the connection between sleep deprivation and cancer growth.

In order for shift workers to develop healthy sleeping patterns and avoid risks of melatonin suppression, they should adopt a consistent sleeping schedule to keep the circadian rhythm in check. Shift workers should also avoid working multiple nights in a row or rotating shifts to keep the internal body clock on a regular schedule.

How Cancer Affects Sleep

Many cancer patients find themselves suffering with insomnia while going through treatment. Cancer doesn’t directly cause insomnia, but some of the consequences of cancer can lead to trouble falling or staying asleep. The main factors contributing to insomnia are mental health status and side effects of medications.

Mental Health Issues for Cancer Patients

Receiving a diagnosis for any variety of cancer creates a very stressful time in a person’s life. Many cancer patients experience high levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression. The effects of hospitalization can also be deteriorating for a person’s mental health. Feelings of loneliness and isolation are common for patients as their lifestyle undergoes a large change.

Any time one experiences difficulties with mental health, it can make it challenging to sleep at night. Losing sleep over your troubles in turn can make your mental health status even worse. To avoid this vicious cycle, patients should do their best to be mindful of managing stress and anxiety. Trying to spend time outside and socializing with your loved ones is a good first step.

How Medication Side Effects Play a Role

Cancer medication can be another factor causing insomnia. Chemotherapy drugs can make patients feel tired during the day, leading to excessive napping which makes it difficult to fall asleep at night.

Other medications that may be prescribed to combat the side effects of chemotherapy treatment may also lead patients to experience poor sleep. Steroids in particular, such as dexamethasone, may be prescribed to prevent nausea from chemotherapy, but they also can cause you to feel energized and lead to trouble sleeping if taken too late in the evening.

Tips for Cancer Patients to Get Better Sleep

While going through treatment, there may be many barriers in the way of a good night of sleep. To combat these issues, there are several steps you can take depending on the cause of your insomnia.

If your sleeplessness is onset by battles with anxiety or depression, communicate this issue with your health care provider to discuss ways to work against it. Joining a support group to talk with others in a similar situation may help offer you the support you need. It’s also important to keep up with activities that bring you joy like listening to music, reading, painting, or cooking.

If your insomnia is due to pain and discomfort, your doctor may be able to prescribe a pain medication to help you be more comfortable. If possible, it will help to reserve time in the bed for nighttime so your body associates your bed with sleep. Staying out of bed during the day will also help you avoid daytime naps that may alter your sleep schedule.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may also be an option for your treatment. CBT is known to be an effective treatment for both insomnia and helping cancer patients cope with their diagnosis. This type of therapy helps you manage stressful situations and use techniques to address mental factors that may lead to insomnia, such as negative emotions and a racing mind.

If you suffer from insomnia while you’re going through treatment, consult with your doctor to determine the best method for helping you achieve better sleep on a consistent basis.


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