Sleep and fatigue
Cancer and its treatment can cause extreme tiredness (fatigue). The worry and uncertainty of living with a cancer diagnosis can also affect your sleep.
Sleep problems can last for many months after treatment finishes. Stress and anxiety can make it difficult to get to sleep or cause you to wake up during the night.
The worry that you are not getting enough sleep can itself be a problem. If you find yourself awake in the night, tell yourself that relaxing can be as refreshing as sleep. Lie quietly and don’t keep looking at the clock. Allow your thoughts to drift away and focus on things that make you feel happy. A relaxation or meditation CD or podcast can be a way to take your mind off the fact that you are not sleeping and you may actually drift off.
Good sleep habits
- Avoid caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, cola) for at least four hours before bedtime – try a cup of herbal tea instead.
- Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol close to bedtime (or give up completely).
- Keep the same bedtime routine each night.
- Only go to bed when you feel sleepy.
- Don’t eat or watch TV in bed, but make it a place only for relaxing or sleeping.
If you continue to have problems sleeping, talk to your GP about self-help strategies or complementary therapies. If necessary, they can refer you to a counsellor or mental health professional, or prescribe medication. If your sleep is disturbed by needing to empty your bowels during the night, your GP may give you medicine, such as loperamide, to slow your digestion.
NHS Choices has more information on coping with sleep problems.
Extreme tiredness (fatigue) is one of the most common effects of cancer and its treatment. It can feel completely draining and can affect all areas of your life. It’s not unusual for fatigue to last for many months after treatment is over. In some people, it may last for a year or two.
Fatigue can affect your mood and your relationships. You may feel impatient, upset or tearful over small things or you may avoid spending time with friends or family. You may be spending longer in bed in the morning, but still have problems sleeping. You may have difficulty accomplishing the smallest tasks and find that you’re short of breath doing even light activities. Poor concentration or memory loss might also be a problem. You might find that you have lost all interest in sex, even though you have recovered physically from your surgery.
Fatigue can get worse if you’re feeling stressed or low in mood. If you think this is the case, ask your healthcare team for help.
The following things can help you cope with fatigue.
- Making a plan of what you want to do each day.
- Doing the most important things first.
- Pacing yourself by taking regular rest breaks, even when you’re having a good day. This can help you feel better in the long-term.
- Trying to keep physically active, even if you don’t feel like it.
Our booklet, Your diet and lifestyle: living with and beyond bowel cancer, has more tips for coping with fatigue.
Updated August 2018. Due for review March 2019.