Researchers Eye Link Between Chemotherapy and Sleep Patterns

Wilmot Cancer Center Study May Offer Clues to Source of Fatigue

February 07, 2005

Fatigue is a common complaint from people undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. And it couldn’t come at a worse time – because that’s when they need the most energy to endure the emotional and physical challenges of beating the disease.

Oncologists encourage patients to get more sleep at night and take naps during the day. But many people are still exhausted, which has cancer and sleep researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center wondering if chemotherapy drugs alter sleep rhythms.

Cancer-related fatigue is generally considered the exhaustion patients experience that doesn’t seem to improve following sleep or rest.  Many patients report tiredness, weakness, sleepiness and difficulty concentrating following their treatments.

“And the fatigue persists long after their treatment for many people, no matter how much they sleep,” said Michael Perlis, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and director of the URMC Sleep Research Laboratory. “This suggests to us that factors beyond the disease, or the side-effects of treatment, may mediate the chronic fatigue that occurs with breast cancer. Part of the goal of this study is to identify these factors and determine what treatments might best bring relief.”  

A research team from the sleep lab and the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center suspects the difficulties may lie in the quality, not quantity, of sleep they get.  They’ve secured a $729,000 grant from the American Cancer Society to conduct the research on patients with lymphomas or breast or colon cancers.

“If the chemotherapy prevents people with cancer from reaching the most restful, healing phase of sleep, it’s not a surprise that they are fatigued and exhausted,” said Joseph Roscoe, Ph.D., research assistant professor of radiation oncology at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center, the principal investigator of the study. “Identifying how chemotherapy affects sleep patterns will help oncologists develop techniques to manage the fatigue.”

The local study will focus on the sleep patterns of 49 people before, during and after chemotherapy treatment. Researchers will monitor them through at-home daily sleep diaries and several nights at the Medical Center’s Sleep Research Laboratory.

The diaries will help the researchers establish a baseline of each individual’s sleep pattern.  Study participants will also wear an actigraph – a watch-like device that measures movement – to let researchers study their sleep and activity patterns outside of the sleep laboratory.

During the overnight visits, researchers will examine participants’ brain waves as they move through the sleep phases.

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