A Mother and her Two Daughters

09 March 2010

A Balancing Act: Fighting Cancer vs. Chemotherapy

Friends and colleagues know that sleep-deprivation has always been one of my physical challenges, even though it’s been a personal trait that I’m often rather proud of.  Yes, I’ve been known to brag about the fact that I only require about five hours of sleep each night, and usually express my sympathies for others who require six or more hours in order to fully function. 

However, I recently stumbled across a research study conducted by the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine in Sendai, Japan.  While you can find almost any study to justify almost anything, this one made me think:  According to the research, women who sleep less than six hours a night could be raising the risk of breast cancer by more than 60 per cent. Scientists believe sleep disruption interferes with the production of a hormone called melatonin, which could play an important role in protecting them from cancer.  The researchers in Japan recorded the lifestyle habits of almost 24,000 women aged 40 to 79 over an eight-year period.  Results showed that those who regularly had six hours' sleep or less every night were 62 per cent more likely to have breast cancer compared to those who slept seven hours. 

I reference the study to say this:  Since taking my first chemo treatment Friday, I have been incredibly tired, going to bed very early and sleeping ten to twelve hours at a time.  Yesterday I attended a luncheon meeting downtown.  And when I returned home, I went back to bed – exhausted.  While I’m told that this is rather typical for the first few days following chemo, I realized yesterday there is probably a fine line between battling cancer and battling chemotherapy. 

My fighting spirit, my tough girl side was telling me, “Don’t give in.  You’re tough.  You don’t need to succumb to these side effects.  Keep on keeping on.”  But it was yesterday that I finally came to my senses:  “Don’t fight the side effects to chemotherapy, especially good ones like sleep.  Good sleep can be healing."

I’m learning more and more each day on this cancer journey; like coming to the realization that fatigue can be a powerful signal for the body, that sleep can be my friend.  While it's my job right now to fight the cancer, I shouldn’t feel that it's a sign of strength to fight the natural side effects of chemotherapy. And an even bigger discovery and one I will grapple with: being tough doesn't always mean smart.  As of today, I'm aiming for a nice combination.  

Giving in to fatigue, getting more rest can be a good thing.  So today I will take a nap when I’m tired.  And to all my friends who fight the urge to get more sleep – GET OVER IT!!  Go to bed early.  Wake up late.  Take a nap.  A good night of sleep can be our friend!  


  1. Once again, a wonderful blog. Also shakes me awake - I've been taking melatonin at night for several years, but have gotten lax about it lately. I'm about to correct that - melatonin, here I come!

  2. I, too, prided myself on how much I could do with just 5 hours/night of sleep, beginning in high school. Then insomnia began for me during my second pregnancy, 21 years ago. 19 years ago I got chronic fatigue syndrome/fibromyalgia, and the insomnia has been a constant issue. two years ago I got breast cancer. Hmmmm....must be something to this study - I had not known this before. Right now I am catching up on your blog after 4 hours of sleep. Perhaps I should try to go get a few more winks?! Thanks!


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