person laying on bed trying to sleep with cancer
Sleep Health

A Sleep Guide for Cancer Patients

  •  Purple Author Icon
    Last Updated
    May 16, 2023
    min read

    Sleep quality and a cancer diagnosis are closely connected. For those battling cancer, achieving restful sleep can be challenging, yet it is crucial. 

    This sleep guide offers information on what causes sleep disturbances in cancer patients along with  tips to share with loved ones affected by cancer.

    The Relationship Between Sleep and Cancer

    In 2019, 1.7 million people were diagnosed with cancer in the United States. Despite the diverse range of cancer types and treatments available, one prevalent issue experienced by many patients is difficulty sleeping. Given the critical role of quality sleep during cancer treatment, it is imperative to identify strategies to enhance sleep during this challenging period. Fortunately, several steps can be taken to improve sleep and promote overall well-being.

    How Sleep Issues Affect Cancer

    The correlation between sleep and wellness is a topic that is being studied more than ever with countless findings determining sleep to be an integral part of overall health and wellness. Quality sleep is the foundation of life, promoting rejuvenation and rest that a life well-lived depends on. This emphasizes the importance of developing regular sleep routines and prioritizing sound sleep daily.

    How Cancer Affects Sleep

    The stress attributed to cancer symptoms can understandably impact the ease with which you fall asleep and stay asleep. . While sleep issues occur in half of those diagnosed with cancer, some of these causes, like snoring or headaches, aren't directly related to cancer.

    Stress Induced By Diagnosis

    Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a life-altering event that can impact individuals in many ways but most commonly through added stress. Coping with stress can significantly disrupt sleep, even for those who typically sleep well. Those with  anxiety and depression may experience heightened symptoms which also impact sleep. Talking to a mental health professional is essential to learning tools and methods that promote peace of mind and restful sleep. .

    Drugs and Chemotherapy

    Cancer treatment varies by type, stage, and person receiving treatment. Many common protocols can interfere with sleep, including chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and medications . All of these can affect the sleep-wake cycle.

    Be sure to  talk to your doctor about how your medication affects your sleep. Work with them to establish a  timing schedule that least interferes with your sleep.

    Being in the Hospital

    The hospital environment is designed for safety and easy access to care  but is not always the most  conducive to sleep. Adding photos of loved ones, bringing a pillow from home and creating a nighttime routine similar to the one you have at home may promote a more comfortable sleep environment. 


    Any sleep problem that results in difficulty falling or staying asleep may be categorized as insomnia. Insomnia is common for people diagnosed with cancer. \

    Sleep Apnea

    Sleep apnea is a sleep disturbance in which breathing stops for more than ten seconds during sleep. It occurs in up to one in three adults. Those with cancer who are also experiencing sleep apnea should speak with their doctor to establish a plan that manages the sleep disturbance. 

    Addressing Cancer Sleep Issues

    7 ways to address cancer sleep issues

    Exercise, diet, and sleep environment are areas that dictate the quality of sleep. Below are a few ways to implement healthy sleep practices in day to day life. Prioritize Exercise

    Engaging in physical activity during the day can enhance sleep quality.

    However, you should try to avoid exercising within three hours of bedtime since activity can raise body temperature and cause the body to release endorphins, which may interfere with sleep if done too late in the day.


    Relaxation therapy, which includes meditation, tensing and relaxing muscles, and some forms of self-hypnosis, can be beneficial when it's time to wind down for bed. It can take time to figure out which relaxation therapy techniques work for you, but the guidance of an experienced professional is recommended. .

    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    A professional experienced in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be influential in  reducing anxiety by changing thoughts around sleep. The added pressure of needing to sleep causes strain, and CBT replaces intrusive or negative thoughts with tools that break the cycle of worrying.. CBT has been known to assist 

    Create a Safe Sleeping Environment

    Creating a safe sleep environment is essential to restful, rejuvenative sleep. Here are some ways to do so: 

    • Dimming lights and preventing bright lights from other rooms or outside the window
    • Reducing noise or using a white noise generator or fan to cover up distracting sounds
    • Maintaining a comfortable sleep temperature
    • Using clean, dry, and smooth bedding that’s soft to the touch and not too hot
    • Layering blankets for added warmth when needed
    • Using extra pillows to get into the best sleeping position for pain-free comfort

    A good mattress is crucial for restful sleep. The ideal mattress will fit your sleep positions and preferences thereby minimizing discomfort and disturbances in the night.  Experts recommend replacing your mattress after a decade or sooner if it shows signs of wear and tear, such as broken or bent springs and damaged foam. For cancer patients, a mattress that provides pressure point relief can be especially comforting.

    Maintain a Routine

    Keeping a schedule may be difficult when undergoing cancer treatment, especially while staying in the hospital for an extended period of time. To get the best sleep possible, ask staff if they can plan care around your sleep schedule so you can get more nighttime rest. 

    Be sure to prioritize a  sleep routine wherever you go.  . This means establishing a  set time to unwind each night and wake every morning. It can take time to adjust to a schedule if you’ve not had a consistent one in the past, but creating normalcy from home to hospital may help you achieve restful sleep no matter the location.  

    Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine 

    Alcohol and caffeine tend to negatively impact sleep in all people by disrupting sleep patterns. Consult your care team to determine if alcohol and caffeine should be avoided during treatment for the sake of sound sleep. 

    Additional Resources on Sleep And Cancer

    These resources may provide additional guidance on how to sleep better with a cancer diagnosis:

    Sleep and Cancer FAQ

    How much sleep do cancer patients need?

    Sleep needs vary when undergoing cancer treatment. It’s common to experience cancer fatigue, and tiredness that may or may not be better with more sleep. Talk to your doctor about your sleep expectations while undergoing treatment. 

    Why do cancer patients have problems sleeping at night?

    Cancer patients' reasons for not sleeping well can be emotional, mental, and physical. In addition to the medicines and treatments that can make it hard to sleep, a good amount of stress adds to sleep difficulties. Adjusting to sleep in a  hospital bed , experiencing disruptions during sleep , and adapting to new medications  may interfere with sleep.

    Does lack of sleep increase the risk of cancer?

    Sleep is one lifestyle factor to consider when discussing cancer risks. The correlation between sleep and cancer is currently studied heavily, but findings remain inconclusive. The CDC recommends 7 hours of sleep per night for maintenance of general well-being.


    About the authors

    Purple Staff
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