Breast cancer: Are you finding it hard to sleep? A biomedical scientist provides a remedy

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Dr Bruinvel founded OWise, a personalised breast cancer support app. Collating valuable insights about your day-today wellbeing, it can be used as a tool to make informed decision about on-going treatment.

According to a recent report published in the journal BMC Cancer, up to 70 percent of people with breast cancer suffer from insomnia or sleep disturbance.

Inadequate sleep quality can have a detrimental effect in healthy individuals, so it’s even more severe when the body is fighting against cancer.

The same report listed “stress, discomfort and changes to daily and bedtime routines” as the culprits behind a change in sleeping patterns.

Exercise

Dr Bruinvel suggests taking up exercise, such as high intensity interval training (HIIT), to combat sleep disturbances,

“For those taking anthracyclines in particular, HIIT can also improve cardiorespiratory fitness,” she said.

However, if you’re experiencing “severe fatigue” or “the breast cancer has spread to the bones” exercises is best avoided.

“Please discuss new workout routines with your doctor,” urged Dr Bruinvel.

Certain breast cancer medication, such as tamoxifen, can cause night sweats.

What are night sweats?

Night sweats are when you wake up to soaking wet PJs and bedding; this is because the body is sweating profusely – even in a cool room.

A silk pillowcase

“If you are experiencing these, try a silk pillowcase,” suggests Dr Bruinvel.

“A cool pillow or a cooling scarf [can help to] keep you cool. Also, it’s helpful to always keep a bottle of water with you.”

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If you’re feeling stressed due to your breast cancer diagnosis, there are different methods to help you relax before bedtime.

Taking time to relax

Dr Bruinvel recommends having at least “half an hour before going to sleep where you take the time to relax”.

“Try not to be on your phone or watch TV at this time,” advises Dr Bruinvel.

Instead, she suggests reading a book, listening to a podcast or taking a bath.

“Preparing for sleep also takes shape earlier in the day,” she adds. “Avoid caffeine after lunchtime and limit alcohol intake.”

Dr Bruinvel says that while you want to be tired by bedtime, “it’s important not to overexert yourself”.

“This can make it even harder to fall asleep,” she warns. “If you’re employed, speak to your employer to make adjustments to your schedule.”

She says this can be done by “reducing the number of hours, working from home or reassigning physically demanding tasks”.

For those struggling to stay awake during the day, “limit yourself to one hour naps”.

And “avoid having any naps after 3pm”, she adds. “Remember to listen to your body to find out what works for you.”

She recommends downloading OWise to “monitor and track your sleep quality”.

“By visualising changes over time – weekly, monthly, or yearly, you can see if there are any patterns in your sleep disturbance and evaluate whether new techniques are working to improve it.”

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