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Sleeping Comfortably With Esophageal Cancer
Learn how to manage sleep disturbances caused by esophageal cancer.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Esophageal cancer can cause sleep disturbances for a number of reasons. Physically, esophageal cancer pain can make it difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. And with everything you're dealing with running through your mind, it can also be tough to get relaxed enough to get a good night's sleep.
Esophageal Cancer: Finding Better Sleep Positions
It may be tough to get comfortable in your bed when you have esophageal cancer. It's important to sleep in a way that minimizes stomach acids coming into contact with your esophagus. In addition, a large and painful tumor can make it difficult to swallow your own saliva, and to find a comfortable spot on the pillow that doesn't put pressure on your throat and the tumor.
For esophageal cancer patients, sleeping "is an issue, but it's an issue for different reasons at different times," says Wayne Hofstetter, MD, an associate professor of thoracic surgery and director of the esophageal program at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
"When people have difficulty sleeping after surgery … we tell them that they need to sleep with their head up, between 20 and 30 degrees elevated," says Dr. Hofstetter. Esophageal cancer patients should also sleep with "pillows on either side, and pillows underneath their legs — to elevate their head. This prevents aspiration and encourages drainage," he says. Wedge shaped firm foam pillows for under the back may be purchased to make this easier.
"Patients with advanced esophageal cancer may have problems sleeping because of pain," as the tumor begins infiltrating other areas of the body and causing pain, says Hofstetter. "We recommend pain medication if difficulty sleeping is because of pain," notes Hofstetter.
Esophageal Cancer: Sleeping Peacefully
Aside from the physical discomfort, esophageal cancer patients often experience sleep disturbances because of the emotional side effects of dealing with esophageal cancer. Many people suffer from depression and anxiety about their disease and their prognosis. It's important to deal with the physical and emotional reasons that make it difficult for you to sleep. There are some things you can do to help your body — and mind — relax at bedtime so that sleep comes easier:
- Talk about it.Keeping your thoughts and fears inside won't do you any favors. Try writing in a journal every morning, to get some anxiety off your chest early so you can get on with your day. Consider joining a support group, meeting with a therapist, or talking with a friend or family member about your most honest fears and concerns. Avoid doing these things just before bedtime, though, when your mind is more likely to dwell on these concerns when you're trying to get to sleep.
- Exercise.Though you don't want to push your body too much, a little exercise each day can help you sleep better at night. It's a great way to tire out your body and mind, and can help you deal with some of the fears and anxieties surrounding your esophageal cancer.
- Set a sleep schedule.Routines can help you fall asleep and stay asleep longer. Go to bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time each morning. If you need a nap during the day, schedule it during a regular period of time, and keep it short. Also prepare yourself for bedtime the same way each night — take a hot bath or shower, read a book, or listen to relaxing music.
- Choose bedtime foods and drinks carefully.What you eat and drink can keep you up at night if you're not careful. Caffeinated foods and beverages like coffee, tea, and chocolate should be avoided by at least four to six hours before bed.
- Create a soothing sleeping environment.Make sure that your bedroom is dark, cool, quiet, and comfortable. Treat yourself to clean sheets and fluffy pillows if they make you more comfortable.
- Take your medication.If pain makes sleep difficult for you, your doctor may recommend a change in the dose or the schedule of your pain medicine that will make you comfortable enough to sleep. Other types of medications, such as antidepressants and sedatives, may help you fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer.
Managing your esophageal cancer symptoms and any extraneous reasons that could be causing sleep disturbances are the recommended ways of dealing with difficulty sleeping, rather than sleep medications or other sleep aids. In addition to treating your cancer and managing your pain, you can help your body to feel better naturally, through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and coming to terms with your fears and anxieties about your illness.
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