The 411 on Sleep and Cancer Treatment Success

Did you know sleep disturbances are common in people with cancer? Although patients spend a considerable amount of time in bed, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sleeping well.

photo of a man suffering from a headache

Insomnia, restless leg syndrome (RLS), and sleep apnea are prevalent sleep disorders in cancer patients. The stress associated with a diagnosis, uncomfortable symptoms, and treatment side effects also contribute to sleep problems. Regrettably, poor-quality sleep can exacerbate fatigue and hinder the body’s ability to heal, adversely affecting treatment outcomes.

This article explains the role of sleep in the health and recovery of cancer patients. By reviewing the benefits of sleep, its impact on the immune system, and its influence on physical and mental health, we highlight why sleep matters, especially during cancer treatment and recovery. We will also provide practical ways to improve sleep quality, allowing patients to harness the therapeutic advantages of a good night’s rest.


How Important Is Sleep for Cancer Patients?

A cohort study showed that poor preoperative sleep quality increased pain and complications in breast cancer patients. Another study demonstrated that obstructive sleep apnea can stimulate cancer metastasis. These research papers prove a link between sleep and cancer, suggesting the need to learn more about the hot topic.

photo of a woman sleeping

How Do the Stages of Sleep Affect Cancer Patients?

The different stages of sleep, the body’s repair processes, and hormonal regulation contribute to how sleep supports the health and recovery of those undergoing cancer treatment.

Sleep is an intricate biological process that involves multiple stages, each playing a unique role in maintaining health and aiding recovery in cancer patients. It has two main types: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). NREM sleep is further broken down into the stages below, each of which affects cancer patients differently:

  • Stage 1 (Light Sleep): Stage 1 is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. Muscle activity decreases, and the eyes move slowly. It lasts one to five minutes and comprises 5 percent of total sleep time. For people with cancer, pain or discomfort can disrupt this stage, making it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Stage 2 (Moderate Sleep): The heart rate slows, and body temperature drops. The body prepares for deep sleep. Adequate time in this stage is necessary for cancer patients to transition smoothly into deeper stages of sleep, which are critical for physical repair.
  • Stage 3 (Deep Sleep): Also known as slow-wave sleep, the body performs most of its repair and regeneration in this stage. For cancer patients, deep sleep supports tissue and muscle recovery, both of which are instrumental for healing.

REM sleep is the stage responsible for dreaming and cognitive processing. During REM sleep, the brain processes emotions and consolidates memories. For cancer patients, REM sleep helps manage stress and emotional well-being, which are often challenged during treatment.


How Does Sleep Help with Cancer Recovery?

The body undergoes various repair processes during sleep. These restorative processes are particularly beneficial for people with cancer, as they contribute to:

  • Enhanced immune function: Adequate sleep supports a robust immune system, which is crucial for combating cancer cells and decreasing the risk of infections during treatment.
  • Tissue repair and regeneration: Deep sleep repairs and heals damaged tissues from treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • Pain management: Improved sleep quality can help alleviate pain from the disease itself and cancer treatments, enhancing overall comfort and well-being during recovery.
  • Energy restoration: Quality sleep replenishes depleted energy levels, enabling patients with demanding treatments and doctor’s appointments to better cope with the physical and emotional toll of recovery.

Sleep is so crucial for cancer recovery that the National Comprehensive Cancer Network updated its survivorship guidelines to now include healthcare professionals monitoring patients’ sleep patterns and quality.


How Does Sleep Regulate Hormones?

Sleep has the power to modulate hormones that play a significant role in how the body responds to cancer.


1. Sleep prompts the pineal gland to secrete melatonin

For years, clinical researchers have studied melatonin for its avenues in cancer therapy. Findings suggest that it contains antioxidant properties that help to maintain balanced activity within the immune system.

Specifically, a 2023 study highlighted the hormone’s many anti-cancer properties, which include:

  • Apoptosis (stimulates cell death)
  • Antiangiogenic (reduces the growth of new blood vessels)
  • Antiproliferative (suppresses cancerous cell growth into surrounding tissue)
  • Metastasis-inhibitory mechanism (minimizes the risk of cancer spreading to other areas of the body_


2. Sleep tempers cortisol and other stress-activated hormones

Commonly known as the stress hormone, cortisol levels drop during sleep, allowing the body to recover from daily stress. For cancer patients, lower cortisol levels during sleep can reduce inflammation and promote overall well-being. High cortisol levels, on the other hand, impair the immune response to cancer, elevate inflammatory signaling, and hasten metastasis.


How Much Sleep Does a Cancer Patient Need?

The amount of consistent, quality sleep a cancer patient requires can vary depending on factors such as treatment regimen, overall health, and personal sleep patterns. However, generally speaking, most patients need between 7 to 9 hours of slumber per night for optimal physical and cognitive functioning.

photo of a man sleeping

How to Sleep Better While Battling Cancer

Cancer patients should tell their healthcare team if they experience persistent sleep problems. Healthcare providers can offer guidance and support, including referrals to sleep specialists or recommendations for sleep aids if necessary.

Doctors also recommend creating a relaxing bedtime routine and practicing good sleep hygiene. For example:

  • Follow a sleep schedule and avoid bedtime procrastination
  • Sleep on a comfortable bed and in a quiet, dark room
  • Experiment with sleeping positions for improved health
  • Don’t drink or overeat before bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine and sugar within six hours of bedtime (and in general)
  • Stop using electrical devices a few hours before going to bed


The Bottom Line

As life becomes more complex and expensive, many of us have convinced ourselves to devalue sleep, viewing it as a luxury rather than a basic necessity. However, there are too many clinical and biological consequences for not getting enough sleep, especially for cancer patients. Clinicians must help patients set themselves up for success by diagnosing and treating sleep disorders, as well as creating consistent sleep environments.