Sleep and Lung Cancer: What's the Connection?

There is a connection between sleep and lung cancer. As with other types of cancer, side effects of treatments such as chemotherapy can make it difficult for people to fall asleep, stay asleep, return to sleep, or get quality sleep.

A good night's sleep is important to not only help you cope with cancer and treatment side effects but also to keep you healthy. In fact, sleep problems, including a lack of sleep or getting too much sleep, can even pose a risk of developing lung cancer.

This article will explore the connections between sleep and lung cancer.

A woman having trouble sleeping

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The Connection Between Sleep and Lung Cancer

There are multiple connections between sleep and lung cancer. These connections go both ways, with sleep impacting lung cancer and lung cancer impacting sleep.

In general, better sleep leads to better health outcomes, but lung cancer can make it difficult to sleep well due to symptoms and treatment side effects. Over 15% of people with lung cancer experience insomnia, which is more than people with other types of cancer.

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is characterized as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, returning to sleep, or sleeping well, which leads to fatigue, difficulty functioning, and other challenges.

Does Lung Cancer Affect Your Sleep?

The symptoms of lung cancer and the side effects of certain treatments can make it difficult to sleep well. Symptoms of lung cancer that interfere with sleep include pain, difficulty breathing, and mental health challenges such as depression or anxiety. Additionally, insomnia can be a side effect of cancer medications and treatments such as chemotherapy.

People with lung cancer may struggle to:

  • Fall asleep
  • Stay asleep (waking during the night or too early in the morning)
  • Return to sleep
  • Get enough total sleep
  • Get quality sleep
  • Breathe while sleeping

Does Sleep Have Any Effect on Lung Cancer?

Sleep has an effect on lung cancer in multiple ways. The average amount of sleep a person gets per night can impact their chances of developing lung cancer. More specifically, people who sleep less than seven hours or more than eight hours per night are at an increased lung cancer risk. This may be related to levels of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep.

Additionally, people who have a breathing disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) experience drops in oxygen levels that may contribute to tumor growth.

What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that involves difficulty breathing when airflow is either partially or fully blocked.

After a person is diagnosed with lung cancer and begins treatment, sleep can still have an impact. Sleep is important when coping with cancer and going through treatments. Getting an adequate amount of quality sleep can help improve physical and mental health.

Getting enough sleep can benefit:

  • Side effects of cancer treatments
  • Energy levels
  • Mood
  • Stress levels
  • Daily functioning

Types of Sleep Issues Likely Caused by Lung Cancer

In addition to how insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea can contribute to the development of lung cancer, the opposite can also be true. Lung cancer can cause and worsen both of these conditions.

Lung Cancer Can Cause Insomnia

Certain symptoms of lung cancer and the side effects of treatment can make it difficult for people to fall asleep and sleep well. For example, lung cancer can cause difficulty breathing, and difficulty breathing can interfere with sleep. There are other aspects of lung cancer that can interfere with sleep, too.

Lung cancer symptoms and treatment side effects that can make it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, return to sleep, or get enough quality sleep include:

Lung Cancer Can Cause OSA

When lung cancer tumors grow, breathing can become more difficult. This is sometimes caused by inflammation (localized irritation or swelling). Tumors can also press against airways, giving the air less space to move and making it difficult to breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which airflow is blocked during sleep, which happens as the muscles relax and loosen while sleeping.

Treatments of Lung Cancer–Induced Sleep Issues

Treating sleep issues related to lung cancer is similar to the way sleep problems are treated in general. However, it is important to consider the treatments being used for cancer to make sure they do not interfere.

Sleep apnea is most commonly treated with a positive airway pressure (PAP) device. This is a machine that uses pressure to push air into the lungs through the nose or the mouth and nose using a mask or nasal device.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) is the primary treatment for insomnia. This is a form of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that focuses on the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to change outcomes, and is specifically designed to treat insomnia.

Medications are sometimes used to treat insomnia. However, their use is a concern for people with lung cancer because some sleep medications can slow breathing, which can add to the problems of already-low oxygen levels.

Lifestyle Changes for Sleep Issues

Making lifestyle changes can improve sleep. For example, weight loss can be used along with other treatments of obstructive sleep apnea to help control symptoms.

Insomnia is best treated with a combination of insomnia-specific cognitive behavioral therapy and multiple lifestyle changes. A few simple adjustments can often go a long way.

Lifestyle changes to explore include:

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.
  • Dim the lights 30 minutes before bed.
  • Manage stress throughout the day.
  • Remove electronics from the bedroom.
  • Exercise in the morning or early afternoon.
  • Make the bed and bedroom comfortable.
  • Limit caffeine to one cup in the morning, or eliminate it completely.
  • Stay away from alcohol, or limit it to one glass before or during dinner.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

It is important to seek the support of a healthcare provider, such as a primary care practitioner, at the first sign of lung cancer symptoms. People often delay care because they don't know their symptoms are warning signs of lung cancer. Those who smoke or have a history of smoking, and anyone between the ages of 55 and 80, are at an increased risk.

Some lung cancer symptoms to look out for are:

  • Cough that lasts eight weeks or more
  • Cough with blood or bloody mucus
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Frequent infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia, or other respiratory infections
  • Pain or tightness in the chest
  • Raspy voice or hoarseness

Some sleep issue symptoms to look out for are:

  • Waking up suddenly or waking up gasping for air
  • Snoring or breathing changes during sleep
  • Waking up with a sore throat or dry mouth
  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or returning to sleep
  • Feeling tired or fatigued during the day
  • Not getting enough total sleep
  • Feeling unrested in the morning

Summary

Lung cancer and sleep are connected in multiple ways. People who have sleep apnea—a sleep disorder that involves difficulty breathing while sleeping—are at an increased risk of lung cancer. Additionally, the symptoms and treatment side effects of lung cancer can cause difficulty falling and/or staying asleep (insomnia). This is a challenge because sleep is important for healing and daily functioning.

Sleep apnea can be treated with a machine called a positive airway pressure (PAP) device. Insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough quality sleep, can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i) and lifestyle changes.

A Word From Verywell

Suspecting, being diagnosed with, and being treated for lung cancer can be challenging. Experiencing sleep issues in addition to lung cancer can be even more challenging. If you struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, get enough quality sleep, or breathe while sleeping, or if you suspect you have a sleep disorder, treatment options are available. Reach out to a primary care practitioner or sleep specialist for support.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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