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Retaking the Night: Sleeping with Cancer

There is a book by John Green called, “The Fault in Our Stars,” that was made into a movie, about teens who fall in love while undergoing cancer treatment. It’s a real tearjerker, no spoilers here. One of my favorite passages in the book is when the main character Hazel Grace Lancaster’s mother tells her “sleep cures cancer.”


Sleep cures cancer

For anyone suffering with cancer, this phrase functions as both an affirmation and a command. Sleep makes coping with cancer better and helps the body physically repair itself. Sleep however is very difficult to get to when suffering from cancer. Fear, hope, dread, and solace feelings as well as physical aches and pains constantly fight for your attention, especially when you attempt to sleep with cancer.


There is no cure for cancer yet. At best treatments may be available to stop your form of cancer from growing or coming back. Some forms of cancer are less painful than others, but consistently interrupted or no sleep is experienced by cancer patients. Individuals suffering from cancer experience a great deal of pain and fatigue. The disease itself hurts. Sleeping is a good way to alleviate pain but oftentimes cancer patients cannot sleep. The disease keeps people up and through time insomnia sets in.


Insomnia defined

The National Sleep Foundation defines insomnia as “difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so.” People with insomnia experience the following symptoms: fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and decreased performance in work or at school.


After prolonged periods of insomnia, cancer patients use sleep aides, like prescription medications, that force the body to go to sleep. That sleep however, never truly feels restful. Another good book to read is “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams” by Matthew Walker. A neuroscientist, Mr. Walker advances the thought that eight hours of sleep lowers the risk of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. The insomnia caused by cancer treatments he argues, prevents the body from protecting itself from the cancer or other illnesses.


Even without a cancer diagnosis, studies consistently show that poor sleep quality spills into other ailments that affect an individual’s overall health and ability to heal. Cancer patients in particular need strong immune systems to avoid relapse or recurrence of the disease.


Returning to Mrs. Lancaster’s mantra, “sleep cures cancer.” Work hard to achieve better natural sleep. It will make you feel better and may even cure your cancer. 

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