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Helpful advice from Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand
BCFNZ nurse Catriona Farac says making time for rest and getting a good sleep is important for maintaining physical and mental health. However, having trouble sleeping is a common experience shared by those with breast cancer, especially while undergoing treatment.
There are a number of reasons for this. Many chemotherapies and medications have side effects such as nausea, night sweats or hot flushes. Some may act as stimulants and cause sleeplessness. Breast cancer surgery can also leave some people in pain or make it difficult to move in bed. If this is the case, Catriona says it’s important to work with your medical team to identify the causes of restlessness to try and rectify the problem.
But she says there are several things people can try to help ensure calm and restorative sleep.
FOCUS ON THE THREE R’S
Improving sleep may mean a change in health behaviours and environmental factors. This is known as sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene is about putting yourself in the best position to sleep well each and every night – and focusing on the three Rs can do this.
THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT TO AID SLEEP
- Create a space that’s quiet and serene.
- Ensure you have a comfortable bed.
- Change bed sheets regularly.
- Get comfortable sleepwear – absorbent cotton is great if you suffer from night sweats.
- Keep the temperature of the room cool and controlled and keep the bedroom as dark as possible.
- Try and limit devices such as phones, laptops and TVs in the bedroom.
A RELAXED BODY
- It’s important to manage any pain or other symptoms before you settle for the evening. Take pain killers or other medications if needed to ensure you are comfortable going to bed. Keep a glass of water and some extra tablets if needed on your bedside table to take in the night. This will allow for minimal disturbances if you do wake up.
- Ensure you feel supported with pillows if needed. Heart-shaped pillows can be provided by BCFNZ nurses free of charge and are great to protect those tender post-op areas allowing you to get comfortable in bed. Using a couple of pillows under your legs can also help provide support for your tummy following breast reconstruction.
- Exercise during the day to tire the body, as exercising in the evening may cause sleep difficulties.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, late meals and spicy foods late in the evening. Perhaps try a herbal tea or warm glass of milk to relax?
- Scented oils and creams may also help with relaxation.
A RELAXED MIND
- Practising meditation or mindfulness can be really therapeutic.
- Read a book or listen to some relaxing music to help wind down before sleep.
- White noise in the background can also help promote peace and relaxation.
- Anxieties and worries can prevent you sleeping, so keep a notebook and pen by your bed. If you wake up in the night with thoughts going around in your head or a list of errands to do, then write them down. This may allow you to clear your mind and relax.
- Some people find they benefit from some counselling to help process all the emotions and anxieties they are dealing with as a result of their diagnosis. Free counselling can be provided by BCFNZ.
Catriona says cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy can cause fatigue, even if you feel that you are getting a full night’s sleep. She says it’s important to listen to your body and rest during the day when needed. Sometimes a nap in the middle of the day can help restore your energy levels, especially if you are having difficulty sleeping at night.
But if sleep becomes very difficult and is affecting your daily life, it’s important to speak to your doctor. They may suggest taking some melatonin supplements or a short course of sleeping tablets. Catriona says it’s best to avoid taking over the counter supplements without first speaking to a doctor, as many supplements may interfere with how cancer treatments work.
BE BREAST AWARE
Good quality sleep is important for everyone, not just those of us undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Some studies have suggested people who suffer from poor sleep can be at higher risk of illness.
BCFNZ encourages women to become breast aware from the age of 20 and learn the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, as early detection is the best protection. Mammograms from the age of 40 are also recommended, although you should still check your breasts regularly between screenings.
You can help reduce your lifetime risk of breast cancer by adopting healthy lifestyle choices. It also pays to understand your family history of breast cancer, so talk with people on both sides of your family.
And if you notice any changes in your breasts or you have any concerns, it’s important to see your doctor. You can visit breastcancerfoundation.org.nz for more information and can also call nurses for advice on 0800 BC NURSE.