Take Charge

Helping Cancer Survivors Overcome Insomnia

May 17, 2018

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By Kim Polacek

We’ve all heard about the importance of getting eight hours of sleep each night, but for many cancer patients that is not always possible. More than half (60 percent) of all cancer survivors experience some level of insomnia. It can be caused by medication or the side effects that come from treatment, as well as the emotional effects of being diagnosed with the disease.

Sleep is important because it is restorative, both physically and emotionally. During sleep, your body produces human growth hormone, which helps cells reproduce and repair. In addition to boosting your immune system, sleep can also improve your mood and quality of life.

Dr. Brian D. Gonzalez, Assistant Member, Health Behavior & Outcomes Program

A new study being presented at the American Society for Clinical Oncology Annual Meeting in June found that utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy and acupuncture can decrease the severity of insomnia among cancer survivors.  The study followed 160 survivors who received either eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy or eight weeks of acupuncture. Both groups saw a decrease in their Insomnia Severity Index, a score used to determine the severity of one’s insomnia.

"Insomnia is a very common and distressing symptom among cancer survivors," said Dr. Brian D. Gonzalez, assistant member of Moffitt’s Health Outcomes & Behavior Program. “Many cancer survivors are looking for integrative medicine treatment options.”

Dr. Gonzalez and other researchers at Moffitt are studying the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy for cancer patients. Some of the behavior modifications they say can help cancer survivors re-establish restorative sleep schedules include:

  • Reduce the amount of time spent in bed when not sleeping
  • Modify unhelpful beliefs about sleep
    • For example, believing you won’t function properly if you do not get exactly eight hours of sleep each night, or thinking you cannot sleep without the help of medication
  • Perform good sleep hygiene
    • Avoid activities that include light from tablets and cellphones, eating too late and performing rigorous activities before bedtime

Acupuncture, also offered at Moffitt, can be beneficial. “So far there has been mixed evidence for the benefits of acupuncture. But this study found that, although cognitive-behavioral therapy was more beneficial overall, acupuncture was just as helpful among survivors with moderate to severe insomnia,” said Dr. Gonzalez.

Dr. Liem Quang Le, Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

“Traditional Chinese Medicine is holistic and tailored to a patient’s specific needs. If someone comes in for treatment of insomnia, he or she would also be given diet and lifestyle recommendations to follow in addition to acupuncture,” said Dr. Liem Quang Le, a doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at Moffitt. “Acupuncture offers many other benefits for cancer patients and survivors, such as stress reduction, balancing hormones, lowering inflammation and boosting the immune system.”

For more sleep advice, check out Five Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep.