With the help of an expert, we look at the best ways to try to get a good night’s sleep.
Difficultly getting to sleep or staying asleep – known as insomnia – is a common problem, affecting around one in three people in the UK, according to the NHS.
If you’re finding it hard to drop off or to get enough sleep to feel alert the next day, the first question to ask is: what’s causing your sleep to be disrupted?
Why can’t I get a good night’s sleep?
According to independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, there are several reasons why someone diagnosed with breast cancer may have trouble sleeping.
‘It’s going to be a stressful and worrisome time,’ says Neil. ‘Stress and worry are part of dealing with the situation, but stress and worry are also the enemies of sleep.
‘Many medicines also have a negative effect on sleep,’ he says. For example, steroid drugs – often given to relieve sickness from chemotherapy – can cause difficulty sleeping. Some side effects can also disrupt sleep, such as hot flushes and night sweats caused by breast cancer treatment.
What can I do about it?
Identifying what’s causing your insomnia, and what you can do about it, is an important step towards improving your sleep.
‘Don’t just accept poor sleep as part of having cancer,’ says Neil.
‘For stress and anxiety, you need to look at stress-reduction techniques.’
There are many self-help techniques you can try, from relaxation and meditation to exercise. ‘Find the right one for you,’ says Neil.
If your sleeplessness is a result of medication or its side effects, speak to your specialist team to see what can be done.
Sleepy or fatigued – what’s the difference?
Feeling sleepy during the day can be a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep at night. But there is a difference between sleepiness and fatigue. Fatigue is extreme tiredness or a lack of energy that may not get better with sleep or rest, and is a common side effect of breast cancer treatment.
There are various things you can do to help manage fatigue. It might seem counter-intuitive, but being physically active can really help with fatigue.
Three things we all need for a good night’s sleep
‘If you ask a good sleeper what they do to get to sleep, they’ll say: “Nothing”,’ says Neil. But according to him, there are generally three things you need when going to sleep.
1. The right environment
‘First, your bedroom needs to be conducive to sleeping,’ says Neil. ‘This means dark, quiet, cool and comfortable.’
If sharing a bed with your partner is causing sleep disruption, or you worry about disrupting their sleep, you may want to try sleeping separately.
2. A relaxed body
Next, you need a relaxed body. One way to ensure this is by being awake during the day.
Doing some exercise during daylight hours can also give your body a good reason to sleep at night.
3. A quiet mind
The third thing you need is a quiet mind.
‘Most of the time it’s the mind that’s stopping you sleeping,’ says Neil. ‘You need to find a way of quieting it.’
This is individual, he says. Some people like to read before going to bed, while others drink a hot milky drink or try meditation. Does listening to Pink Floyd really loudly relax you? Then go ahead!
‘It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it gives you a quiet mind,’ says Neil.
Neil stresses the importance of ‘winding down’ at least 30 minutes before sleep. And it’s best to put the smartphone or tablet screen to bed first.
Do high-street sleep aids work?
An array of high-street products, from herbal tablets and drops to sprays and patches, claim to relieve sleep disturbances.
Can a few drops of lavender oil on the pillow help you drift off?
‘There’s no magic answer,’ says Neil. ‘It’s whatever works for you.
‘If you can’t stand the smell of lavender then it’s not going to relax you. But there’s no reason not to try something.’
Neil stresses that if you do try something, then try it for at least a week, not just for one night.
What treatments are available?
What about medicines and sleep aids you can buy from the pharmacy?
‘Over-the-counter sleeping aids aren’t long-term treatments,’ says Neil. ‘They’re only designed to be used short term.’
Sometimes a doctor might consider prescribing sleeping pills for insomnia. Neil stresses that all drugs have side effects as well as benefits. And, of course, sleeping pills will not address the underlying causes of insomnia. But taking one occasionally may help.
Some people who have difficulties getting back to their old sleeping patterns find talking therapies, such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), helpful after a breast cancer diagnosis. You can ask your GP or specialist team about these, or visit our web page on managing stress and anxiety.
'Let sleep find you'
If you’re lying in bed right now, struggling to fall asleep, what should you do?
‘You shouldn’t be struggling to get to sleep,’ says Neil. ‘The harder you try to fall asleep, the less likely you are to do so.’
Neil’s advice is that if you’re still awake within 30 minutes of going to bed, get up, go to another room, do something else, then go back to bed when you feel sleepy.
‘You can’t find sleep,’ he says. ‘You have to let sleep find you.’
You can find plenty of tips about sleep, fatigue and relaxation on Breast Cancer Now's Becca app.