Fight Cancer with Sleep

While you sleep, your immune system produces some of your body’s most effective cancer-fighting weapons. Here’s how to make sure you get the sleep you need to maximize their production.

By Ellen Michaud with Julie Bain from Sleep to Be Sexy Smart and Slim

9. SHRUG IT OFF. When you find yourself wide awake at 3:00 A.M., just shrug it off. Okay, so you’ll lose one night’s sleep. Big deal. You have got enough to worry about.


10. FIGHT NIGHTTIME NAUSEA. Grate one tablespoon of gingerroot into a cup of hot water. Steep for 10 minutes, then sip. Forget the packaged stuff—you can’t count on the same amount of active ingredient in each and every tea bag.


11. USE THE 4-STEP METHOD. A study at Harvard Medical School found that women who experienced tamoxifen-induced hot flushes had significantly fewer hot flushes during cancer treatment when they practiced the relaxation response pioneered by Herbert Benson, M.D., a cardiologist who heads the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston.In general, the response involves these four steps: Choose a word that has deep personal meaning for you, such as “peace.” Close your eyes and focus your attention on the word. Repeat it silently to yourself. When your attention wanders, as it will, gently bring it back to the word.Take a deep breath and exhale. Begin to consciously relax each of your muscles from your face to your toes.


When you’re finished, continue to focus on your chosen word for another 10 to 15 minutes.Then allow yourself to gently move into sleep.


12. TREAT WHAT YOU CAN TREAT. Sometimes you have an underlying condition—arthritis, back pain, or snoring, for example—that has always troubled your sleep but was never a big deal. Then all of a sudden you add chemotherapy to the mix and find that sleep is a thing of the past. There’s not a lot you can do about the chemotherapy, but you can do something about the arthritis, back pain, or snoring. Tell your oncologist about the underlying problem and ask him what treatment will work best with your chemotherapy. Chances are, just treating the underlying problem will reduce what’s disturbing you enough to let you sleep.


13. DITCH NEWS AND STUPID OPINIONS. Negative words and images are not going to help you sleep. So—at least in the hours before bed—avoid TV news programs and the amazing collection of opinionated talk-show hosts who make their living stirring up anger and controversy. Allow yourself to get ready for bed without their voices in your head.


14. STRIKE A BALANCE. Women aren’t used to nurturing themselves or putting themselves first. But sleep is so necessary for healing that you have to do it. If the dog’s snoring wakes you up, put him in another room. If your partner’s snoring wakes you, whether it’s just a seasonal allergy, a cold, or even sleep apnea, help him get treatment. If he refuses to cooperate, put him in another room, too.


“One thing that really kept me up, and keeps me up today, is my kids,” admits Dr. Silver. “My daughter has been in three times this week with nightmares. She’s seven years old and it’s September, and she’s just starting school again. So she has a lot of things going on in her mind. But she wakes me up, and it’s hard to go back to sleep.


The thing is, you can’t just turn off being a mom. Yes, you need to nurture yourself so you’ll heal. But your children are going through cancer, too. They’re worried about you, about themselves, about how everything has changed. So you need to nurture yourself, but within the constraints of reality.


“You can’t just send your kid back to bed with her fear,” says Dr. Silver, “but I would use every trick to reassure my kids so that I could get them to sleep.” She’d also use some parenting tactics that, under normal circumstances, would horrify her—like promising to buy them gifts if they would go to sleep.


“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” says Dr. Silver. “And when you’re having cancer treatment and you’re desperately trying to heal, well, maybe that isn’t exactly the way you would parent under normal circumstances. But you do what you need to do to get them”—and you—“to sleep.”


15. CONNECT. Reach out to friends and family. Call your best friend, sit with a neighbor in your backyard as she cuts back your roses, ask your mom to come make you lunch, have friends from your spiritual community drop by. Feel a part of that rich network of human sustenance.


16. ASK FOR PRAYER. “I asked people to pray for me at 9:00 P.M. every night,” says Dr. Silver. “That was after I’d put my kids to bed and I was alone in my room, usually in pain, trying to sleep.


“I was incredibly lonely and incredibly scared. My usual routine had been changed. I went to bed much earlier, and when I went to bed, I was very worried and very lonely.”


She hesitates. “You know, cancer’s a very lonely disease. I have a wonderful, wonderful husband, awesome kids, a great family, terrific friends. But cancer’s a lonely disease, and you fight it by yourself.


“To feel surrounded and uplifted by prayer—it helps.”

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