Sleep and Cancer

28 May 2018

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Expert interviewed:
Catherine Mason, psychiatrist

Catherine Mason and Julie McCrossinThe thing about cancer is that it can really disrupt your sleep. This might be because you’re worried about being diagnosed with cancer or because of some of the treatment’s side effects.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, your mind is probably occupied with many different thoughts and emotions, and sleep may be low on your list of concerns. But getting a good night’s sleep can improve your quality of life, and make it easier to deal with the other issues you are now facing.

But how does cancer affect sleep? Why is sleep so important? And what happens if you have cancer, but aren’t getting enough sleep?

In this episode of The Thing About Cancer, Julie sits down with psychiatrist Catherine Mason to answer these questions, and to find out how to get the sleep you need.

Listen to Sleep and Cancer now to learn more, or find more episodes here.

How does cancer affect sleep?

Catherine says that there are many ways that cancer can affect sleep, but the most obvious one is that news of a diagnosis is stressful – and when stressful thoughts kick-in at night, they can make getting to sleep challenging.

Why is sleep important?

Catherine explains that sleep is important across a person’s lifespan. It seems to be an essential part of maintenance for our bodies and our minds, especially during periods of rapid growth, from babies through to teenagers.

Sleep helps us sort out memories, and it also helps with tissue repair and with keeping everything ticking over.

But Catherine cautions that you shouldn’t get too worried if you aren’t getting enough sleep, as this can make falling sleep even harder. She tells us that we all have experienced times in our lives where we haven’t had much sleep – whether it’s worrying about work or being up all night with a new-born – and we all get through it in the end.

What is the difference between REM and non-REM sleep?

Catherine delves into the science of sleep, looking at sleep cycles, circadian rhythms, and describing how REM and non-REM differ.

— Catherine Mason, psychiatrist

What are the signs that your sleep is being disrupted, and that you might want to talk to your team and get help?

Some of the signs that your sleep is being disrupted are you have trouble getting to sleep, you’re waking up through the night, or you’re waking up in the morning feeling exhausted.

“But just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you can’t have ordinary sleep problems [that are unrelated to cancer], such as sleep apnoea,” Catherine says.

— Annmaree, diagnosed with breast cancer

Can sleeplessness or lack of sleep influence how you feel pain?

Sleep and pain can act as a feedback mechanism – for example, experiencing pain can negatively impact sleep, and that in turn can create more discomfort and anxiety over that pain.

So, it’s important to talk to your team so they can modify your pain management regime, which will help you improve the quality of your sleep.

What are some strategies that can help you improve your sleep?

Catherine goes through things you can do to help you sleep better. These include everything from avoiding caffeinated drinks after midday, to mild exercise, to creating a sleep environment that’s comfortable for you.

We also learn if melatonin plays a role in getting to sleep, and if following a routine makes sleep easier.

— Annmaree, diagnosed with breast cancer

Listen to Sleep and Cancer now to learn more, or find more episodes here.

Want more information or support? 

If you heard something mentioned in the podcast, you’ll find a link to it below. We’ve also added links to other sources of information and support.

From Cancer Council NSW 

From other organisations

Listen to Sleep and Cancer now to learn more, or find more episodes here.