Improving Your Sleep: For Cancer Survivors

This information explains how you can improve your sleep after cancer treatment.  

Sleeping well at night is important for physical and mental health. Getting the sleep you need:

  • Improves your ability to learn, remember, and solve problems.
  • Lowers blood pressure.
  • Helps with weight control.
  • Strengthens the immune system.
  • Helps your body heal.

As a cancer survivor, you may have trouble sleeping because of:

  • Physical changes caused by the cancer or surgery.
  • Side effects of medications or other treatments.
  • Stress and anxiety.
  • Health problems that are not related to cancer.

The most common sleep problems in cancer survivors include:

  • Feeling sleepy during the day.
  • Having trouble falling asleep.
  • Waking up in the middle of the night.

Suggestions to Improve Your Sleep

During the day


  • Do some form of exercise every day, but stop exercising 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.

Get some sunlight

  • Make an effort to get some sunlight each day, especially in the morning. Open your shades or go outside.

Limit your napping

  • Taking naps in the late afternoon can make it harder for you to fall asleep at night.
  • If you feel you must take a nap, take it earlier in the day and set an alarm to wake you up after 30 minutes.

Write down when you go to sleep and wake up

  • Keep a record of the times you go to sleep (including naps) and wake up (including during the night). This can help you notice any patterns on the nights you have problems with your sleep.

Ask about treatments

  • Ask your healthcare provider about treatments available to improve your sleep. One option is behavioral therapy. This can be effective without the use of medication.
  • The Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK) Integrative Medicine Service offers relaxation therapies that may help you sleep better. You can contact the service at 646-888-0800 or go to

At bedtime

Dim the lights

  • Light tells your brain to stay awake, so dimming it will help your body get ready to sleep. Turn off any bright lights and use low-watt light bulbs in the evening. This includes the lights in your bathroom.
  • Limit your time in front of the computer, TV, reading tablets, or video games. Dim the screen if possible.

Limit food and drinks

  • Do not have any caffeine or nicotine for several hours before bedtime.  They can both keep you awake.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol. It may help you fall asleep, but it can make you wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Finish eating dinner at least 3 hours before you want to go to sleep.
  • Limit liquids before bedtime, especially if you often get up at night to urinate.

Make your bedroom comfortable

  • Keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and cool. If you can’t make your bedroom dark, use a sleep mask.
  • If noise is a problem, try earplugs or white noise such as a CD with ocean sounds.
  • Switch to a heavier or lighter blanket as the seasons change.
  • Do not watch TV, use the computer, or talk on the phone while lying in bed. Use your bed only for sleep and sexual activity.
  • Do not let your pets sleep in your bedroom because their movements may wake you up.

Stick with a routine

  • Go to bed at the same time each evening and get up at the same time in the morning, even on the weekends.

Be safe if you have to get up in the middle of the night

  • Make sure the floor is clear of objects, including clothes and area rugs.
  • Use nightlights in the bathroom and hallway.
  • Keep a glass of water, a phone, your eyeglasses, and a lamp by your bed in case you need them.

Relax each evening starting 1 hour before going to sleep

Try any of the following:

  • Deep breathing exercises (see section called “Deep Breathing Exercises”)
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Listening to soft music
  • Reading
  • A warm bath

Ways to manage your worries

  • If you are worried about something, make a list of things you are worried about and then write down what you can do to decrease that worry. For example, you may ask your doctor about a symptom or talk about your fears with a friend or family member. Tell yourself that you will do those things the next day.
  • Turn your clocks so that they are not facing you. Staring at the clock can keep you awake and worried.
  • Do not lie in bed awake. Feeling anxious about not being able to sleep can make it harder to fall asleep. Everyone is different, but for a lot of people, 20 minutes is enough time to fall asleep. If you are still awake 20 minutes after you go to bed, get up and do a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.
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Deep Breathing Exercise

Deep breathing is an exercise that can help you relax. It is very simple and you can teach it to yourself.  It can help you clear your mind, release tension, and sleep better. You can do it any time you feel stressed or anxious.

  1. Get into a comfortable position in a chair or in your bed. If you are in bed, raise your head as much as possible.
  2. Place one hand on your stomach, just below your ribs. If you are right handed, use your right hand; if you are left-handed, use your left hand.
  3. Exhale completely through your mouth.
  4. If you can, close your eyes and inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Feel your stomach push up on your hand. Imagine that air is filling your whole body from the bottom up.
  5. Pause for a couple of seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth or nose. Try to exhale completely and imagine the air leaving your lungs, mouth, or nose.
  6. As you exhale, allow your body to relax and go limp, like a rag doll.
  7. Repeat the exercise 5 to 10 times.
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Additional Resources

  • For a video on improving your sleep, visit:
  • The Resources for Life After Cancer Center (RLAC) program has support services for cancer survivors and their families. You can talk with a social worker who understands cancer issues. Social workers at RLAC can provide one-on-one support and refer you to various support groups that may be helpful. Call 646-888-8106 for more information.
  • MSK Counseling Center. Many people find that counseling helps them deal with emotions during cancer treatment. Our counselors provide counseling for individuals, couples, families, and groups, as well as medications to help with anxiety or depression. Our counselors are also available to inpatients during their hospital stay. Call 646-888-0200 for more information. 
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