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Sleep problems

Many people with cancer have trouble sleeping. Cancer or its treatments can affect your sleep-wake cycle and change your usual sleep patterns. Sleep problems such as lack of sleep or feeling tired can make coping with cancer more difficult. It can also make symptoms of the disease or side effects of treatment seem worse.


Sleep problems can be caused by emotions, including anxiety or depression. They can also be caused by symptoms of cancer or side effects of treatment, including:

  • pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • shortness of breath
  • night sweats
  • having to urinate often, or urinary frequency
  • flu-like symptoms

You may also have sleep problems if your regular sleep schedule is interrupted. Some people also have abnormal behaviours during sleep such as sleepwalking or terrors.


Symptoms of sleep problems can vary depending of their cause and other factors.

People with cancer often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. This is also called insomnia. It is the most common sleep problem reported by people with cancer.

Other people fall asleep at the wrong time or sleep too much. Too much sleep during the day interferes with night-time sleep.

Sometimes people with sleep problems feel that the sleep they get isn’t refreshing.


Your healthcare team will try to find the cause of your sleep problems. This usually involves questions about your sleep, which may include:

  • How long does it take you to fall asleep?
  • Do you wake up after falling asleep? If you wake up, are you able to fall asleep again?
  • What is the total amount of time you sleep each night?
  • Do you take daytime naps? When and for how long?
  • Do you wake up feeling refreshed or tired?
  • What is your energy level like?
  • Are you taking anything that may affect your sleep, such as medicines, caffeine or alcohol?
  • Are you taking any medicines to help you sleep?

Managing sleep problems

Once the cause of the sleep problem is known, your healthcare team can suggest ways to manage it. If possible, they will try to treat the cause of your sleep problem. If sleep problems aren’t managed, they may develop into long-term problems that can last for several years. You can also try the following measures to help you manage sleep problems.

If possible, try to stay active or exercise a little each day. It is okay to take a nap, but try not to sleep all day.

Try to keep a normal bedtime routine. Go to sleep in a quiet setting. Go to bed only when sleepy. If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get out of bed and return when you’re sleepy.

Drink warm, non-caffeinated drinks before going to sleep. Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks or alcohol close to bedtime.

Try relaxation exercises, listening to soothing music, darkening the room or massage before bed.

Keep sheets clean and have extra covers handy in case you get cold.

Talk to someone you trust about any fears and concerns you have. Do this during the day to help lessen fears and free your mind at night.

Talk to your healthcare team about medicines to help you sleep. Take medicines for sleep, pain or other symptoms as prescribed before trying to sleep. Report symptoms that may be causing problems with sleep, such as pain.