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Insomnia and chemotherapy

Difficulty sleeping isn't a common chemotherapy side effect, but drugs affect people in different ways.

It can depend on which chemotherapy drugs you're having. 

People often have chemotherapy with steroids, either as part of the treatment or to help with sickness. Steroids are well known for causing sleep disturbance. It might help to take them in the morning. Some anti sickness drugs can make you feel restless. If this happens to you, tell your doctor as you might be able to have a different type. 

Insomnia does affect people with cancer, for reasons not always related to their cancer treatment.

  • Worry can disrupt your sleep – many people with cancer find they can't sleep at times because they're worrying about their disease, treatment or maybe disruptions to family and work life.
  • Depression can affect your sleep – you often go off to sleep but wake very early and can't get back to sleep again. If you're depressed, some counselling or a course of anti depressants might help you.
  • If you're in pain you might find it hard to sleep – speak to your doctor or specialist nurse, who can help you manage the pain.

What can help

There are things that might help. Sleeping pills can help some people. There are many types available. Some sleeping pills might give you a bit of a hangover in the morning. But there are others that are shorter acting and do not.

If you don't like the idea of taking tablets to help you sleep, try having a relaxing bath and a warm milk drink before you go to bed. Tea and coffee are not a good idea because they contain caffeine, which will keep you awake. Try to make sure you get enough physical exercise during the day, so that you really are tired when you go to bed.

If you really can't sleep, it's best not to lie there. Try getting up and doing something quiet, such as reading, a crossword or a jigsaw, until you feel tired. Then try again.

Whatever the reason, you might find it helpful to visit your GP if you're having sleep problems.

Last reviewed: 
25 Mar 2014
  • Cancer and its management, Tobias and others. 6th Ed, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

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