Sleeping Strategies for Mesothelioma Patients | Online Support Group

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Everyone has sleep problems at one time or another. While it’s relatively common for healthy people to have trouble falling asleep or experience daytime sleepiness, sleep disorders arise more frequently in those diagnosed with mesothelioma and other cancers.

In fact, the National Cancer Institute reports up to 50 percent of people with cancer have sleeping problems. The most common sleep disorders among cancer patients include insomnia and an abnormal sleep-wake cycle.

Sleep disorders can cause a number of issues for cancer patients. Lack of sleep can hurt decision making and may make it harder to remember instructions about treatment. When we don’t address our sleep problems, it can increase the risk of anxiety or depression.

It’s important for mesothelioma patients to address the underlying cause of their sleep problems. Cancer-related pain, medications and stress are a few factors that can affect the quality of sleep.

Although many people immediately turn to sleeping pills when they’re not getting enough rest, there are plenty of ways to change your nighttime behaviors to improve your sleep without using medication.

What Causes Sleep Problems?

A variety of factors can impact sleep in people with mesothelioma. Some common causes of sleep problems include:

  • Physical discomfort from the cancer or surgery
  • Side effects of treatment and medications
  • Stress over the diagnosis
  • The hospital environment

Postoperative pain can interrupt sleep. So can chemotherapy side effects such as nausea and gastrointestinal problems.

Doctors often prescribe steroids to stimulate appetite and help control mesothelioma symptoms, but these medications can cause insomnia and agitation.

Anxiety and depression related to the cancer diagnosis also can make falling asleep difficult. Symptoms of anxiety include worrying, restlessness and racing thoughts.

Depression can lead to hypersomnia, a sleep disorder that causes people to sleep 12 to 16 hours and still experience fatigue and daytime sleepiness. Insomnia, or persistent difficulty falling and staying asleep, is another sleep disorder linked to depression.

It is often difficult for people to sleep well in the hospital. Patients commonly have problems falling or staying asleep because of shared rooms, uncomfortable beds, room temperature or noise. Doctors and nurses often interrupt sleep when they provide medications or perform regular checkups.

Addressing the Causes of Sleep Disorders

When mesothelioma patients experience sleep problems, the best approach is to find and address the cause.

If pain is waking you up at night or keeping you from falling asleep, you might benefit from better pain management. Your doctor may be able to prescribe stronger or longer-acting pain medication.

When excessive worrying or ruminating thoughts cause sleep problems, treating the anxiety with counseling or medication can help.

Doctors prescribe high doses of steroids to some patients with breathing problems, but a common side effect is physical and psychological overstimulation. While experts often suggest people try changing their sleep habits and behaviors before taking sleeping pills, steroid-related insomnia is an exception.

Behavioral sleep strategies are not as effective for insomnia caused by steroids. It is usually necessary for patients experiencing steroid-related sleep problems to use a short-term prescription medication such as Ambien or Lunesta.

Strategies to Help You Sleep Better

Getting a good night’s sleep has noteworthy benefits. Well-rested cancer patients tend to have more energy and cope better with the side effects of cancer and treatments.

Sleep specialists and health professionals have developed strategies to improve sleep by changing thoughts and behaviors related to sleeping. In addition, making some changes to your sleeping environment can help you sleep better.

Stimulus Control

Anxiety over lack of sleep often makes falling asleep even more difficult. Many people worry too much about the amount of sleep they’re getting and stay awake at night staring at the clock.

Turning the clock away from your bed or removing it altogether has shown to help with this anxiety. Experts also suggest you try to stop counting the number of hours you sleep and refrain from overreacting about not getting enough sleep.

Scheduling and Restricting Sleep

When mesothelioma patients are undergoing treatment, they may have more erratic sleep schedules. Treatment side effects or changes to the normal work or activity schedule can make it difficult to get enough rest.

It’s beneficial to wake up at the same time each day, even when your daily schedule doesn’t require it. A regular schedule helps you regulate your circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that affects our sleep patterns.

If you are having difficulty falling asleep or getting enough sleep overall, it may be helpful to reduce the number of hours you sleep for a few days. This is called sleep restriction, and it enables the body to build up an increased need for sleep. Depriving yourself of sleep may allow you get back on a regular sleeping schedule.

Improving Sleep Hygiene

Altering our bedtime habits and sleeping environments can also help us sleep better. Studies show you should avoid eating large meals and refrain from caffeine and nicotine in the evening because these activities lead to trouble falling asleep.

If your doctor has recommended an exercise routine, try to do your workout early in the day. Exercising in the four hours before you go to bed can make it difficult to fall asleep.

Take some time to wind down before bed by dimming the lights, lowering the volume on the TV and engaging in quiet activities. Experts recommend you only use your bed for sleep and sex so that your mind only associates your bed with those activities.

Optimal sleep occurs in rooms that are dark and slightly cool. Avoid light — especially blue light — at night because it disrupts sleep patterns. Watching TV in bed or using electronics such as tablets, smart phones or computers has shown to stimulate our brains at a time when we need to be reducing brain stimulation.

If you must read in bed before you go to sleep, try to read a print book using a soft light instead of reading on an e-book reader, tablet or computer screen.

Good Sleep Is Important

On average, we spend one-third of our lives sleeping. Even though we are not alert or active during sleep, getting enough sleep is important for our physical health and mental well-being.

Decades of research on sleep has produced some valuable strategies for mesothelioma patients suffering from poor sleep. Give some of these strategies a try before taking sleeping pills or asking your doctor for a prescription sedative.

  1. National Cancer Institute. (2016, January 27). General Information about Sleep Disorders. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/sleep-disorders-pdq
  2. National Cancer Institute. (2016, January 27). Sleep Disorders in Cancer Patients. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/side-effects/sleep-disorders-pdq#section/_3
  3. Harvard Health. (2015, September 2). Blue light has a dark side. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

Dana Nolan, MS, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor who leads The Mesothelioma Center’s monthly support group. She specializes in working with individuals affected by cancer. Dana practices in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

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