Insomnia in Cancer Patients: Causes, Risks, and How to Manage

Have you ever spent a night turning and rolling on your bed, waiting for the sleep to kick in? You turned off the lights, hoping it’ll make the whole process faster. Yet, there you are, wide awake in the middle of the night. You then plugged in the earphones, attempting to lull yourself to sleep, but dreamland seems to have closed its door for good. What else is there to do then other than wait for the sun to wake up?

Generally, there are many reasons why people may have trouble falling or staying asleep. Among the most common causes include taking naps during the day, caffeine intake, or even an uncomfortable environment. However, difficulty sleeping may also indicate serious medical conditions in some cases, such as insomnia.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is the term used to refer to a type of sleeping disorder characterized by the inability to initiate sleep or stay asleep. The condition comes in different forms. Some people diagnosed with insomnia may experience difficulty falling asleep, while others may be able to snatch a few hours of rest but will experience consistent interruptions in their slumber. The condition may also last only for a few weeks, which is called short-term insomnia, or may extend for months or even longer, which is called chronic insomnia. 

Over time, people diagnosed with this condition may experience poor memory performance, extreme mood swings, weakened immune systems and even increased risk of cardiovascular disease or mental health problems due to consistent sleep deprivation.

Insomnia in Cancer Patients: Causes

To date, many cancer patients experience insomnia. In a recent study, about 30.9% to 54.3% of newly-diagnosed and recently treated cancer patients were reported to be suffering from this type of sleeping disorder. 

Scientists and medical experts believe that varying factors could cause this. Among the possible reasons include:

  • Stress

In 2014, researchers reviewed a total of 63 articles tackling the relation between sleep and stress. In all previous studies, they observed that stressful life events correlated with decreased slow-wave sleep (SWS), also known as “deep sleep.” This is the part where your cells regenerate, and the tissues in your body repair themselves, allowing you to feel energized and refreshed when you wake up.

Generally, when one is stressed, the body responds by activating the fight or flight response, which results in increased alertness and heightened senses. Consequently, these side effects make it harder for people to fall asleep since their senses are more sensitive than usual. 

Since stress naturally comes after a cancer diagnosis, it’s natural that some patients may experience difficulty sleeping. The abrupt changes in their routines can make them feel less in control and could put their emotions in chaos. Moreover, other problems, such as financial troubles and feelings of isolation, can add up to these daily stresses of cancer patients. All these factors may keep them up at night or prevent them from enjoying a deep and relaxing sleep. 

  • Medical treatments

Insomnia may also arise as a side effect of certain medications. Stimulants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs antidepressants are described to cause sleeping problems, which typically include insomnia. Specifically, the activating effects of these medications are observed by some researchers to cause deterioration in sleep quality.

Some asthma medications, especially Theophylline, also act similar to caffeine, which explains why taking them may cause sleep troubles. In a 1993 study, researchers divided ten healthy males into two groups. The first group was given theophylline at 12-h intervals, while the second received a placebo. After 14 days, the subjects were made to switch groups, and the same pattern was repeated. The results show that low doses of oral theophylline cause significant disturbance in sleep quality.

Other medications that may result in a similar side effect include beta-blockers, statins, and even oral decongestants.

  • Pain

Various studies have documented a high prevalence of sleep disturbance in people dealing with chronic pain. Sleep complaints have been observed in about 67-88% of chronic pain disorders, while at least half of all individuals with insomnia are reported to have chronic pain.


Generally, any unpleasant sensation in the body makes it harder for someone to fall asleep. Once they manage to do so, the throbbing pain may still wake them up and disrupt their supposed good night’s rest. 

Moreover, just as pain affects sleep, sleep also affects our perception of pain. When one is sleep-deprived, his pain tolerance slides down, making him more sensitive and vulnerable to any unpleasant sensation.

Since pain is often associated with cancer, it’s no surprise that many cancer patients may experience consistent sleeping difficulties. Some treatments now being offered to help reduce insomnia symptoms as a side effect of pain include stimulus control therapy, relaxation training, and the use of pain relievers. 

What are the risks of developing insomnia while battling cancer?

Generally, sleep is an important element in the recovery process. When we’re asleep, we give our bodies the chance to rest and recharge. Our cells regenerate, and even our tissues and bones repair themselves. Such processes are vital, especially when recovering after surgery or any other extensive treatment in relation to cancer.

Without sufficient sleep, our body systems and organs will have to work double the normal without the benefit of a good night’s rest. Eventually, this will take a toll on your health, possibly leading to a weaker immune system, trouble with your ability to concentrate, high blood pressure, and even anxiety and depression. All these can make your battle against cancer even more challenging.

New Hope Medical Center provides a holistic type of treatment that focuses on the physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of cancer patients. We offer treatment programs designed to address cancer symptoms and improve the overall health of a person as a whole. 


Click here for our blog Disclaimer.