My experience with insomnia as a breast cancer survivor has been a debilitating challenge preventing the overall healing I expected after treatment. I get a “good night’s sleep” about 30% of the time. I struggle with falling asleep, waking too early or repetitively, or just staring at the ceiling for hours until dawn.
As a 20 plus year veteran nurse, I understand the body’s processes and potential to truly heal and fully restore optimal health, and I employ the following information myself to help with insomnia, but foremost to prevent recurrence.
Preventing Breast Cancer Recurrence is Achievable
My observations and medical and personal experience lead me to propose that it can take up to five years after treatment ends for restoration of health after breast cancer (due to the intense stress of physical, mental and emotional turmoil associated with a cancer diagnosis and treatment) provided there is no recurrence in that interval. Even if there is, sufficient sleep and rest will combat cancer growth as a primary defense.
Breast cancer patients can absolutely achieve a greater level of health that is above pre-diagnosis and combat /prevent recurrence with simple, intentional life changes.
Medical interventions such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation result in the primordial need for eight or more hours of sleep to effectively heal from the results of those interventions. Daily rest periods in our ongoing recovery are equally crucial.
Breast cancer treatment follow up in most cases is primarily a series of appointments, over the subsequent 5 years past treatment, dotted with some labs and scans, usually sparse in comparison with what feels safe or comfortable to the recovering breast cancer patient.
Most cancer patients will relay that they received no information in their post treatment plans that include either the teaching of the preventative power of full sleep cycles to prevention of recurrence, nor any other clinically proven (natural) actions to take which arm them against recurrence.
Rather, these plans universally focus on highlighting the fear of the “likely possibility” of recurrence. The patient is left looking over their shoulder (as my oncologist advised was my expectation) for the rest of their life and are unsure at best what to do to live confidant and cancer-free.
Most often, we are offered only the option of taking brutal medications that seriously inhibit our quality of life and mental health.
Refusing to live in hopelessness, I have researched many natural defenses which can tangibly be employed to combat insidious cancer regrowth, the most important of which is sleep.
How Does Lack of Sleep Cause a Risk Of Recurrence?
Most women do not get enough sleep to begin with, which predisposes the body to disease states and especially breast cancer, as it is commonly linked to adverse, imbalanced hormonal states, which occur with lack of REM sleeps.
The few studies done since 1976 on the results of poor sleep vs long sleep in post treatment breast cancer survivors reveal a correlation between recurrence and long sleep times (nine or more hours consistently, which is suspected to include fragmented, interrupted sleep), but document that the inconsistency across the board is whether or not these women had undiagnosed underlying conditions (such as depression, sleep apnea or heart disease) predisposing them to excess cancer-friendly cytokines caused by (disease-related) increased stress states. It is important to note that “long sleep times” did not necessarily mean actual uninterrupted sleep of nine hours duration, but rather, nine hours of being in bed attempting to sleep. What was confirmed was that persistently interrupted sleep, fragmented sleep, and short sleep times correlate positively with breast cancer recurrence.
Hormone restoration and distribution occur during sleep, but do not occur adequately in less than 8 hours of sleep. Aldosterone (regulates sodium and potassium) and renin (manages blood pressure) are two important renal (kidney) hormones necessary to help distribute cortisol (the fat and fluid retention stress hormone) and remove excess fat, toxins and fluid from the body, among other important anti-inflammatory and immune functions.
Reduced sleep and inconsistent sleep patterns distort the circadian rhythm of the body, altering the ways these and other hormones perform within the body’s natural defense against inflammation and disease. The end result is altered cell function, which produces disease states, profoundly, cancer.
A little known fact rarely discussed with breast cancer patients is that lingering DNA particles from (treated) and dying cancer cells move into the bloodstream and can lie dormant in the body. They become activated anytime later from diverse sources of persistent and excess inflammation such as stress, dehydration, cell starvation (not enough nutrients), lack of oxygen to organs and organ systems, and other internal states that hinder or halt the body in regenerating and restoring itself. (See this company’s information on ctDNA and end of article for more information. Ask your oncologist or PCP to order this for you. To pay out of pocket, if your insurance will not cover it requires just the doctor’s order and costs in the range of $80)
Chronic stress can cause insomnia and vice versa. In turn, vulnerable internal body regions (ex: mastectomy sites and lymph node(s) (function) restricted by excess, blocked lymphatic fluid) become rich environments for tumor growth. The lymphatic system is how displaced DNA from cancer cells get from one place to another in the body; in addition, body systems that are not consistently restored and regenerated during adequate sleep times are also highly vulnerable to altered cell division, which ultimately leads to abnormal cell growth. This abnormal cell growth if not checked or caught has a strong potential to become cancerous.This is what can cause a secondary or separate cancer state in the body.
What Happens During Sleep That Works To Prevent Recurrence?
The regeneration and restoration of cells and organ systems which occur during optimal sleep duration are imperative to health and especially in preventing cancer in the first place, as well as recurrence.
During sleep, the brain sends signals to the entire body, calling for a slowdown in most functions, elicits the release of necessary hormones that cause growth and repair to skin, muscles and tissues and more. Blood flow is increased to problematic areas for healing.
The brain also regenerates new brain cells, forms myelin (which protects the neural pathways) processes problems and thoughts through dreams and chemical reactions. These reactions reduce a constant of the negative stress-related “fight or flight response” states during the day as the body and mind has been “worked on” to create a more calm state. A body that stays in this FOF mode predominantly or frequently is incredibly strained and at risk for illness and overall system-wide decreased function.
Daily rest breaks, even in 5 minute intervals during the day, allow the body to stop demanding of itself to perform for a bit, giving itself a momentary reboot. This is necessary for mental and physical health.
Real Solutions To Insomnia and Jagged Sleep Patterns:
The insomnia related to (breast) cancer can be long-lasting, induced by several factors both inside and outside our control.
Our mental health is adversely affected by a diagnosis of cancer, the fear of dying, treatment modalities, (processes, techniques) the fear of the unknown, and many other deeply individual idiosyncrasies that, many times, breast cancer patients have no words to verbalize.
So, how in the world do we obtain enough adequate sleep to benefit from it?
- Obtain Trauma Therapy. Getting professional help as soon as, but preferably before, you notice any changes in your mental and emotional health after diagnosis will go a long way in creating a calmer self and more peaceful life perspective. This will do wonders in restoring rest and sleep, especially if your mental and emotional health were compromised to begin with. This decision is a catalyst to our healing.
Therapy teaches us to reframe our thoughts (which are paramount to our health and healing) and experiences and arms us with new thought processes that highlight the importance of being compassionate to ourselves and focusing on the fact that “we are doing the best we can” in any given life situation. We must learn to stop living in guilt-producing self-condemnation. That will keep you up at night, by itself.
Effective therapy guides us to creating a peaceful mind, and teaches us positive times to focus on problems and form effectual solutions, rather than at bedtime, which we all naturally do. These changes positively produce optimal functions in the brain’s synapses causing less inflammation, irritation and unpleasant feelings, which inhibit falling and/or staying asleep.
2. Get a prescription. When lack of sleep is fostered or caused by menopause, chemotherapy effects, or the formidable radiation process, medicinal approaches appear to be imperative to successfully achieving restful sleep. I am 18 months post treatment and must take both Ambien and low dose Trazodone to sleep. I am not addicted. I need to sleep.
Here are some options: (Read this article about medications in the aforementioned link on sleep.)
- Wellamoon (this is new to me, but as a nurse, I see no problem with it and am going to try it!) Read the positives on the product, but also read the reviews on distribution.
- CBD, full spectrum hemp, and here (Important hint: for breast cancer treatment and prevention of recurrence, you will need higher, concentrated doses, including CBG and ThC. Yes, you can get an actual prescription or do your own rogue research to purchase.
3. Reboot your mind after a no sleep jag (and to prevent a long one). I realized recently during one of the 1–2 week episodes of (absolutely) no sleep I experience sometimes, that I was stressing so much at night to fall asleep, that I was actually keeping myself awake trying (I am sure you can relate). I expected to stay awake, so I did. Here are the simple things I do that help me break that cycle and begin returning to regular sleep:
- Move my pillow to the opposite end of the bed. (Why? I don’t know. It works a lot of the time.)
- Sleep in another bed (my child’s. I move him.)
- Not being the last one to go to bed. ( I am weirded out being the only one awake in the house after my diagnosis.)
- Invest at least $40 in a sound machine. Both my mother and I swear by them.
- Journal writing: getting feelings, frustrations and fears out on paper restores my inner center and I sleep every time.
- Purposely change my thought process each day after I experience no sleep, from a helpless outlook to one that reminds me I can still accomplish things and have a good day. This entails checking my feelings about the lack of sleep the night before (or the previous 5) which are usually a regalia of fearful responses (what if I never sleep?, what if brain metastasis is causing this?, I must have done something wrong and my conscience is pressing on me?, I’m so frustrated, I can’t do anything I want or need to after no sleep. This is hopeless.) Just a few pages into this book helped me dramatically change my perspective in dealing with bouts of insomnia.
Cancer cells thrive on strain and stress, so reducing daily stress and inflammation that occur from the hectic nature of life is an attainable goal we all have the power to work toward through rest and sleep.
Breast cancer patients do have many tangible options to create a hostile environment for breast cancer recurrence. We can survive and live out our lives healthy and confident in our ability to do so. Knowledge and education on our options always better our outcomes.
It’s difficult as a female many times to stand firm in self-care when we spend most of our waking time planning and executing the care of so many others in our lives. However, prioritizing our rest and sleep, is not debatable and cannot be compromised. We literally need it to survive our diagnosis.
See my other associated on Prevention of Recurrence: