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Addressing Insomnia During Cancer Care

By February 1, 2010

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New research on 823 people receiving chemotherapy reveals that far more experience insomnia than previously thought. The study was published in the January 10th issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The researchers found that insomnia was at least twice as common in people receiving chemotherapy as compared with the general population. About 80% of those receiving chemotherapy had symptoms of insomnia or had insomnia syndrome at some point during treatment. Younger people, those less than 58 years old, had a higher risk of insomnia compared with people over 58.

Getting Your Shut Eye

The researchers noted that insomnia is common and under-treated among patients with cancer receiving chemotherapy. If you are in cancer treatment and this is affecting your sleep, getting more shut eye should be a priority. It may seem impossible to improve your sleep, but a few steps can help.

Don't ignore it. If cancer treatment is affecting your sleep, talk to your doctor. Getting enough sleep is an important part of helping your body heal and tolerate treatment. Lack of sleep even can decrease immune function. Poor immune function, as measured by white blood cell count can make it harder to recover after each cycle of chemotherapy.

Your doctor can help you decide if temporary use of a sleep medication will be helpful. Many people worry about becoming addicted to sleep medication, but short term use is safe for most people. And sleep aids can help "reset the clock". In a sense, these medications, when used occasionally, may help your body "remember how to sleep."

Help yourself. Even if you decide not to take any sleep medications, you can do a lot to help yourself sleep better. Try cutting back on caffeine. For a start, don't have caffeine after noon. Also, if possible, keep yourself to 1-2 caffeinated beverages per day total. This includes coffee, colas, some teas, and energy drinks.

Set up a relaxing ritual to signal "bedtime". For many people, following the same, soothing routine at night helps their brain and body wind down and sleep better.

The routine might be reading a bit, having a cup of non-caffeinated tea such as chamomile, praying, or meditating. Just be sure whatever you read won't wind you up. When reading before bed, avoid upsetting topics like politics, war, and disaster. It's OK to want to learn about these things, but just save that reading for earlier in the day or evening.

Cut down on TV and computer time. Researchers have found that light from electronic equipment can suppress melatonin, a hormone your body needs to produce for good quality sleep. Go TV and computer free for at least an hour before bed.

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