Sleep Disorders in Cancer Patients
Key Points for This Section
- Sleep disorders are more common in people with cancer.
- Tumors may cause sleep problems.
- Certain drugs or treatments may affect sleep.
- Being in the hospital may make it harder to sleep.
- Stress caused by learning the cancer diagnosis often causes sleeping problems.
- Other health problems not related to cancer may cause a sleep disorder.
While sleep disorders affect a small number of healthy people, as many as half of patients with cancer have problems sleeping. The sleep disorders most likely to affect patients with cancer are insomnia and an abnormal sleep-wake cycle.
There are many reasons a cancer patient may have trouble sleeping, including:
- Physical changes caused by the cancer or surgery.
- Side effects of drugs or other treatments.
- Being in the hospital.
- Stress about having cancer.
- Health problems not related to the cancer.
For patients with tumors, the tumor may cause the following problems that make it hard to sleep:
- Pressure from the tumor on nearby areas of the body.
- Gastrointestinal problems (nausea, constipation, diarrhea, being unable to control your bowels).
- Bladder problems (irritation, being unable to control urine flow).
- Trouble breathing.
- Feeling very tired.
Common cancer treatments and drugs can affect normal sleep patterns. How well a cancer patient sleeps may be affected by:
- Hormone therapy.
- Sedatives and tranquilizers.
Long-term use of certain drugs may cause insomnia. Stopping or decreasing the use of certain drugs can also affect normal sleep. Other side effects of drugs and treatments that may affect the sleep-wake cycle include the following:
- Pain. (See the PDQ summary on Pain for more information.)
- Anxiety. (See the PDQ summary on Adjustment to Cancer: Anxiety and Distress for more information.)
- Night sweats or hot flashes. (See the PDQ summary on Fever, Sweats, and Hot Flashes for more information.)
- Gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and being unable to control the bowels. (See the PDQ summary on Gastrointestinal Complications for more information.)
- Bladder problems, such as irritation or being unable to control urine.
- Breathing problems.
Getting a normal night’s sleep in the hospital is difficult. The following may affect how well a patient sleeps:
- Hospital environment – Patients may be bothered by an uncomfortable bed, pillow, or room temperature; noise; or sharing a room with a stranger.
- Hospital routine – Sleep may be interrupted when doctors and nurses come in to check on you or give you drugs, other treatments, or exams.
Getting sleep during a hospital stay may also be affected by anxiety and the patient's age.
Stress, anxiety, and depression are common reactions to learning you have cancer, receiving treatments, and being in the hospital. These are common causes of insomnia. (See the PDQ summary on Depression for more information.)