A banner that says World Sleep Day

Today is World Sleep Day – a day aimed at celebrating and promoting the importance of sleep. In this blog, senior editor Elissia looks at some common barriers to sleeping well, and explains how you can try to improve your sleep pattern.

Whether settling into bed is a highlight of your day, or if nodding off each night is often a struggle – good quality sleep is essential for our physical and mental wellbeing. But, it is very common to experience sleep problems. This is called insomnia.

Insomnia means having difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, or waking up feeling unrefreshed or tired (fatigued). Many people affected by cancer have trouble sleeping, for lots of different reasons.

Why might sleeping be difficult?

Lots of things can make sleeping difficult. It could be something you don’t think about, or haven’t previously recognised as a factor. For example:

  • Environment - Your bedroom may be too hot, cold, light or noisy.
  • Emotional factors – You may be feeling anxious, worried or stressed, which can keep you awake. If you are living with a cancer diagnosis, or if someone close to you is, you may be experiencing emotional distress.
  • Physical factors – Being in pain or feeling unwell might also mean you find it hard to sleep. We have more information about managing cancer pain and an audiobook which you can order or listen to online.
  • Medication – Some medicines such as steroids can disrupt sleeping. If you are taking steroids, ask your doctor if you can take them earlier in the day.
  • Lifestyle – Are you getting enough physical activity during the day? Or, do you drink alcohol and caffeine? These things can affect sleep, as can smoking.

Not getting enough, or any, sleep for a long period of time can lead to anxiety, depression, concentration problems and difficulty making decisions. If you are worried that disturbed sleep is affecting how you function during the day, talk to your doctor or specialist nurse.

Things you could do to help with sleep

There are some practical things you could try, that might help you sleep better.

  • Get into a regular bedtime routine. The simplest of routines, like brushing your teeth or reading in bed, can let your brain know that it’s time to sleep.
  • Try to sleep for the right amount of time – most adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep. Sometimes this varies so try to work out what is best for you.
  • Try to do more physical activity – even something small like walking or gardening during the day can help you sleep better. We have more information about exercise online, or you can order our booklet Physical activity and cancer for free.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day – do this as much as you can.
  • Keep your bedroom for sleeping, and make it a relaxing place to be – make sure it is dark, quiet and comfortable. If your bedroom is noisy, using ear plugs may help.
  • Keep your bedroom at the same, comfortably warm, temperature.
  • Try not to smoke, drink alcohol or eat or drink things that will stimulate you before bed – this includes tea, coffee, cola and chocolate.
  • Try mental exercises – they focus your brain on something other than your worries. This could be trying to remember a poem or the lines of a song, making alphabetical lists of countries, trying to remember a happy experience in detail, or even… counting sheep!
  • If you are struggling to sleep, get out of bed and try to stop thinking about not being able to sleep. Go back to bed after 10 minutes, and repeat this if you still can’t settle.
  • And finally, avoid watching TV or using a mobile phone, tablet or computer before bed. These screens have a blue light that can make it harder to fall asleep. Your brain may also be stimulated by what you are looking at.

An image of a quote from our supporter Chridster
Coping with worry and anxiety

Feelings of worry, anxiety and fear can make it difficult to sleep. If you find yourself lying awake in the night, going over the same concerns in your own mind, some of the following tips may help:

  • Write down your concerns – note down your worries and ask for support from family, friends or a doctor the next day.
  • Talkshare your feelings with others – with a friend, a family member, or by chatting to others in a similar situation on our Online Community.
  • Relaxation techniques – breathing exercises can help to reduce stress and anxiety. We have a free CD called Relax and breathe which may help. You can also listen to it online, here.

For more information about coping with sleeping difficulties, visit our website. Or, if you are struggling more generally with cancer related fatigue, we have lots of information which you may find helpful – online, as a booklet, and as an audiobook.


To see what else Macmillan's cancer information team has been blogging about, please visit our blog home page! You can subscribe to receive our blogs by email or RSS too.

We're with you every step of the way

The Macmillan team is here to help. Our cancer support specialists can answer your questions, offer support, or simply listen if you need a chat. Call us free on 0808 808 00 00.

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