One of my biggest ongoing problems during and after cancer treatment is sleep. And problems with sleep cause more problems in the day, creating an awful cycle if it doesn’t get sorted. I was in this cycle for over a decade, but have recently invested a lot of time into improving my sleep and wish I’d tried these things sooner so I’m going to share my best tips to help you sleep with cancer anxiety. These are things you can do anywhere, even in hospital, and there are a few products I would recommend too if you’re struggling to sleep / know someone who is (included below).
There’s something about night-time, when you’re winding down and trying to ‘switch off’ from the world that gives me great anxiety. And this comes from years of internalising my feelings, which caused intrusive thoughts that are most common at night. These used to be centred around cancer reoccurrence, and then developed into anxiety that I’m ‘not doing enough’ as a person lucky enough to be in remission. I’ve written a little example of my overactive night time thoughts to give you an insight into what I’m talking about:
‘ok, must go to sleep. Did I do enough today? oh god I wasted another day not achieving anything, I’ll do better tomorrow. Right. To-do list for tomorrow is go to work, do the washing, go to the gym… that’s still not achieving anything great long-term. Why am I here? Why did I survive just to live a life of mundanity, oh god what am I doing? No Sophie, you need to live your best life and make something of yourself. Oh god what if I never do? Great, now my legs hurting, ok, try to think about something other than the pain. think about happy memories, the sea, calming thoughts… fuck this it really hurts, maybe I need a painkiller? can’t take too many painkillers they’re bad for you, but not getting enough sleep is bad for you and if I don’t take one I’ll probs wake up in pain. Should I? Shouldn’t I?………’my brain at night
So basically, a LOT of ‘mind talk’, I tend overanalyse and frustrate myself with my sporadic and fast-paced train of thought at night. I’m sure this is a common problem, and peaks when mixed with ‘scanxiety’. So I have a few tricks that really help me to get to sleep when dealing with cancer-related anxiety. I’ve only started having an actual sleeping pattern and getting enough sleep now (age 22)! It took me a long time to get here! This is mainly due to chronic pain and anxiety.
Here’s my list of things that have helped immensely:
1. Lavender Oil
I love this stuff. Seems like such a small thing to do but I put a few drops on my pillow each night as soon as I get in to bed. We all know lavender is used a lot for its calming properties, I don’t really know the science behind this (please tell me if you do!) but I find even the association of the smell with ‘bedtime’ helps me let my brain know it’s time to go to sleep. You can buy expensive ones, but I found that this one from Wilko has the same effect and is only £1.50, so it’s worth trying out! You can also get lavender pillows if you really fancy it. I find the oil easy to bring in my make-up bag when I’m staying somewhere (this one is small enough to bring in your hand luggage on a flight), including hospital. The smell of hospital beds still makes me gag slightly.
2. Guided meditation
I know, meditation seems like a daunting prospect, but it can be surprisingly low key. And it’s free! You don’t have to be laying in a candle-lit room with pan pipe music, guiding your own thoughts. You can just search sleep meditation on youtube and play the first vid. That’s what I do (although I do practice daytime mediation regularly so I am admittedly into it). All I do at night is choose one of the first yt vids, turn the volume up half way and tuck my phone under my pillow with just the bottom speaker poking out (I don’t pay for premium where you can lock the screen haha), and listen to a guided meditation (usually while my boyfriend plays Fifa). It really is that easy to incorporate. I very much recommend this for quieting ‘mind talk’, even if I don’t follow exactly what is said in the meditation I like the fact it prompts slow pace of thoughts and gives you something to focus on other than worrying. You could also just listen to music to quiet mind talk if mediation isn’t your thing.
3. Self-care routine
I’m not really a routine sort of person. I know you’re supposed to wake up early, eat regular meals, go to bed at the same time everyday, but for some of us, that’s not really possible. I’ve probably never had a whole week of routined days since finishing school. I work in a restaurant so have changing shifts, sometimes finishing late, and am still in the post-uni lifestyle of going out in the evening. At uni I was always working late (aka going out), and would wake up very late, and often not eat breakfast etc. and found it impossible to have a routine. Now I have a few things I do before bed that help my brain know it’s ‘bedtime’. They’re really simple and you probably do most of them already, but I find making a point of doing them helps me with bedtime association. All I do is brush my teeth, take my make-up off, and moisturise my face. That’s it. 5 mins at most. I think the key ingredient to this is using Lush’s Vanishing Cream moisturiser because it smells like lavender. Apparently it’s also a thing to massage your face to relieve stress(?) Must admit I’ve watched a YouTube tutorial on how to de-stress yourself through facial massage lolol.
I used to take opioids to get to sleep. For years I relied on them. And when I decided to stop using them (as they were more of an emotional crutch than a pain killer), I found sleeping very hard. I then started long-term chronic nerve pain medication and find sleeping much easier. I would recommend talking to a GP or a clinician at your appointments about difficulty sleeping and see what they recommend. It took going to a pain clinic (with a 9 month waiting list) for me to change medication, but it was worth the wait! I now take Nortriptoline at 8pm everyday and it’s improved my sleep greatly by seriously reducing my chronic pain level at night. Sometimes I supplement this with ibuprofen if I have overworked my leg during the day.
5. Wear a sleep-tracker
This doesn’t help you fall asleep, but helps you to understand what helps you to fall asleep. This should improve your sleep in the long-term by showing you how much of a difference certain bedtime rituals (e.g. meditation) can make. By wearing a device that analyses your sleep pattern (it doesn’t have to be a Fitbit, that’s just what I use) you can see what works for you and trial different things, maybe a few of the previous things on this list!
At the beginning of this year, my sister and I bought matching Fitbits (goals) to try and improve our fitness levels. It was a very solid investment. We both bought the Fitbit Charge 3 which included a sleep tracker. We find it really interesting to see the amount of REM sleep we get, and find it easier to see what helps us sleep well because it keeps track of each night to look back on. For example, my sleep last night:
So, those are my top 5 tips for improving your sleep when dealing with cancer related anxiety. I would also recommend many other lifestyle things like exercising each day, walking outside, and eating healthily, but I know these are not easy for some people living in remission to do, so I’ve tried to only include things that are easily accessible, low cost (apart from the Fitbit, sorry!), and easy to do when you’re staying in hospital.
Let me know if you have any tips and tricks that help you get to sleep when suffering from cancer related anxiety!