Sleep disturbances are common in people who have cancer—especially those undergoing chemotherapy—which makes a challenging situation even more difficult. Chemotherapy and other treatments cause side effects, such as pain, itching, fever, and hot flashes that make sleep difficult.

Cancer patients usually complain they can't fall or stay asleep and have an erratic sleep-wake cycle. Breast cancer patients in particular often struggle with sleep loss. Women cite sleeping problems among their most distressing symptoms during chemotherapy.

We all have a master internal biological clock (circadian clock) that regulates our body's rhythms throughout the day, such as temperature, hormone levels, and our sleep-wake cycle. During chemotherapy, the powerful medications can knock your circadian sleep rhythms out of sync. The first round of chemotherapy is especially disruptive, but the longer you undergo chemotherapy, the more difficult it becomes to regulate your internal clock. Furthermore, disruptions to circadian rhythms may even contribute to cancer development.

Overcome Chemotherapy Related Sleep-Loss

Sleep is crucial, especially when you are fighting cancer or other illnesses. Here are some ways to combat chemotherapy-induced sleep loss.

Start by talking to your physician. Managing side effects, including sleep loss, is part of cancer treatment, so tell your doctor if you are not sleeping. If appropriate, your physician may prescribe a sleeping aid.

Create an environment conducive to sleeping. For example, use comfortable bedding and make sure your bedroom is dark when you go to bed. Limit your bed to two activities: sleep and intimacy. Don't watch TV or play on your computer.

Avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods, alcohol, and caffeine, especially at night. Try eating a high-protein snack two hours before going to bed.

Don't exercise too close to bedtime. Exercise is certainly important, but it's best to finish at least two hours before you plan to sleep.

Develop good sleep habits. Go to bed and wake the same time every day. Train your body that it's time for sleep with regular bedtime routines, such as drinking a cup of herbal tea or brushing your teeth. Whatever rituals or steps you take before going bed, do them consistently.

Explore complementary and alternative treatments. Acupuncture is widely used to help manage the side effects of chemotherapy. Not only does it reduce cancer-related pain and help you sleep, it reduces stress and boosts your immune system, which enhances your body's ability to handle the stresses of chemotherapy.


National Cancer Institute. "Chemotherapy and You." Web. 29 June 2007.

National Cancer Institute. "Pain Control." Web. March 2008.

National Cancer Institute. "Sleep Disorders." Web. 8 January 2010.

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "An Interview With Xiaoming Tian, L.Ac., C.M.D." Web. Feb 2010.

University of Utah Health Care. "Chemotherapy Linked to Sleep-Wake Cycle Disruptions." Web. 1 September 2009.