Sleep, cancer and cancer treatment: Understanding the link

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By Dave Balachandran, M.D.


Sleep is fundamental to life. From the smallest single cell organisms to living, breathing human beings, every creature on earth gets rest or sleeps. For humans, sleep is vital to our existence. The quality of our sleep can determine whether we live vibrant, healthy lives or are inundated with illness.   

For cancer patients in particular, sleep quality may influence treatment outcomes. Poor quality sleep can influence the patient's prognosis and influence how well the body tolerates cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

Studies show that almost 80% of cancer patients will complain about disturbed sleep during their cancer journeys. Cancer and cancer therapies have side effects that impair good quality sleep, leading to insomnia, daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Sleep affects immune function, and a lack of sleep may put patients undergoing cancer therapy at greater risk of infections.

Sleep help for MD Anderson patients
To help our cancer patients who struggle with sleep, MD Anderson established a Sleep Center in 2006. So far, we have seen more than 3,000 patients with a variety of sleep disorders including insomnia, sleep apnea, excess daytime sleepiness and fatigue, restless leg syndrome and other complex sleep disorders. 

The Sleep Center aims to: 

  • improve sleep in cancer patients
  • understand the issues which disturb their sleep
  • devise treatments and strategies to improve sleep quality

Finding hope in new sleep research
Symptoms such as insomnia may predate a patient's cancer diagnosis and persist throughout cancer treatment and beyond. Poor quality and short sleep times have been linked to increased risk of breast cancer and colon cancer.

Recently, preliminary studies have shown that sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which a patient temporarily stops breathing while asleep, is linked to increased risk of cancer and may accelerate the growth of tumors.

These recent developments foster hope that improving sleep may actually decrease cancer rates and improve cancer outcomes. 

In the coming months, I'll further explore the relationship between sleep and cancer here on Cancerwise. I hope you'll join me as I share tips to promote better sleep.

MD Anderson's Sleep Center accepts referrals from MD Anderson patients or their oncologists. Please call 713-792-4017 for a sleep consult.

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