07/21/2010 11:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Relief for Cancer Patients With Insomnia

Battling cancer is a tough job. Not only does the disease take its toll on an ailing body, but modern treatments often include side-effects that can make healing all the more challenging. And insomnia is among those side effects.

I see many patients who've gone through cancer treatment only to be left with chronic insomnia. In fact, as many as one-third of all cancer patients develop sleep problems during treatment that then can persist for years afterward--even after the cancer has gone into remission. Sadly, the insomnia doesn't go into remission too. Insomnia takes over these patients' lives for many reasons, including stress caused by their illness and changes to regular sleep patterns caused by their treatments.

But there's hope. A new study is underway in a research program based in Alberta, Canada to help such patients gain the control they so desire of their sleep life. It's called I-CAN Sleep (short for Individuals with Insomnia and CANcer), and it's the first Canadian study to assess sleep-improving techniques specifically intended for cancer patients and survivors.

Why is this necessary? Well, consider the following:

  • Insomnia very rarely goes away on its own once it becomes chronic.  Some sort of intervention is typically required.
  •  Sedatives aren't a viable long-term solution because sleep becomes dependent on the medication. Besides, who wants to rely on sedatives for the rest of their lives?
  • Insufficient sleep can negatively impact a person's mood and pain threshold, compounding the difficulty of cancer treatment--and setting up an individual for living with a high risk for other health challenges, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The crux of this study examines two areas related to sleep:

  1. how the body can relax the mind; and
  2. how the mind can relax the body.

My guess is the study will show that the techniques I've been endorsing for years are helpful. They are, after all, the essence of mind-body sleep medicine. Examples include:

  • Establishing an ideal setting for sleep that entails a calm, clutter-free and cool bedroom.
  • Taking the time to r-e-l-a-x before bedtime and "power down" so the mind and body prepare for sleep and actually expect sleep to be imminent. This can encompass any number of mind-body practices such as visualization, light yoga, meditation and deep breathing. 
  • Avoiding stimulants, from electronics and caffeine to page-turning thrillers and work at night.
  • Learning how to engage the mind when your head hits the pillow to sedate the body to sleep naturally. Again, this can involve certain bedtime practices that teach the body to enter a deeply calming and sleep-enhancing state.

Note that all of these strategies are non-invasive, drug-free and cost free. Something that typically cannot be said for all those exhausting weeks and months of addressing an illness as scary and severe as cancer with traditional medicine. 

I would also venture to guess that those patients who can successfully get back a restful night will gain back more than sound sleep. They'll capture more health. More vitality and energy. And definitely more life.

To learn more about the I-CAN Sleep program, call 1-877-SLEEP40.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

This article on insomnia in cancer patients is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog: by Sleep Doctor Michael Breus, PhD.