Insomnia Causes and Treatment for People With Cancer

Insomnia is a sleep disorder defined by the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or gain restful sleep for a period of time. People with cancer often suffer from insomnia for a variety of reasons, usually related to cancer treatment and the stresses it imposes on their lives. It is an extremely common disorder affecting millions of people each year.

Insomnia can be either acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).

Woman in bed in the dark

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Symptoms of Insomnia

Insomnia symptoms include:

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • waking up throughout the night
  • waking up too early
  • not getting a restful sleep; feeling tired upon awakening

Causes of Insomnia During Cancer Treatment

There are several reasons why a person undergoing cancer treatment may develop insomnia. Common possible causes include:

Medication Side Effects: People with cancer are often prescribed several different types of medications, which can produce a myriad of side effects, including insomnia. When picking up prescriptions, always read the information provided with the medication. It will list pertinent patient information, such as side effects one can expect. These information sheets are good to reference if you experience unusual symptoms after taking medications, so be sure to keep them handy. If you have any questions about medication side effects, consult your pharmacist or doctor.

Caffeine Consumption: Fatigue is one of the most commonly reported side effects of cancer treatment and many patients turn to coffee, soft drinks, and energy drinks to fight it. While caffeine may temporarily give you a boost of energy, it may be the culprit when it comes to sleep problems. Did you know that it can take up to 8 hours for the effects of caffeine to wear off? It's best to avoid caffeine and limit consumption. If you drink caffeinated beverages, avoid it in the afternoon and evening.

Stress: Stress, anxiety, and worry can all cause insomnia, especially for those who are battling a chronic disease, like cancer. The overall stresses of having cancer, coping with side effects, and changes in quality of life can cause sleep problems.

Please note that there are other causes of insomnia, including medical conditions like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Stress, medication side effects, and caffeine consumption are the most common causes of insomnia in cancer patients without an existing mitigating factor.

Treatment for Insomnia in Cancer

To properly treat insomnia, it is imperative to determine the underlying cause. By treating the cause, you ultimately alleviate the symptoms. Addressing issues like stress, caffeine consumption, and possible medication side effects can greatly improve insomnia.

Drug therapies, also known as sedatives or sleeping pills, are available. They can be effective in most people, which is an advantage. Disadvantages of most common pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for insomnia include side effects like dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches.

There are also over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements used to treat insomnia. Before taking any OTC drugs or herbal supplements, talk to your doctor. Herbs and other homeopathic medicines may interact with pharmaceutical drugs, potentially creating an adverse reaction.

Exercise, if permitted, is also a non-pharmaceutical way that may help combat insomnia. Some people have had success with yoga and meditation also. Other alternative insomnia therapies include relaxation therapy and aromatherapy. More Ways to Treat Insomnia.

Insomnia Can Also Affect Cancer Caregivers

People with cancer aren't the only ones affected by insomnia when a diagnosis in made -- caregivers can also experience the sleep disorder. Like patients, stress, caffeine consumption, and medication side effects are often the culprit.

If you are experiencing insomnia, talk to your doctor. It may be a common disorder, but it not overlooked in the medical community. With your doctor's guidance, insomnia can usually be easily managed with pharmacological treatment, non-pharmacological treatments, and alternative therapy.

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  • "Sleeping Problems: Insomnia," American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), 07/2015.