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New study set to tackle chronic insomnia in cancer patients

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by Cancer Research UK | News

20 March 2003

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Cancer Research UK scientists in Scotland launch a new trial today, to find the best way to treat the chronic insomnia often experienced by cancer patients.

Over a quarter of people with cancer have severe sleep problems, which has a devastating affect on their physical and mental well-being and their ability to cope with their disease.

Patients on the trial will be taught how to increase their chances of sleep using a technique called cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – a type of psychotherapy that helps people examine and overcome the thoughts and behaviours at the root of their problem.

CBT has already proved to be successful in treating chronic insomnia in other situations. Now, in the largest trial of its kind researchers will test whether the technique can help cancer patients with the condition.

Trial leader Professor Colin Espie, a Cancer Research UK scientist based at the University of Glasgow, says: “Chronic insomnia is not just a matter of missing one night’s sleep, it can run over many consecutive nights and become a long term and distressing problem for patients.

“The condition can be triggered by depression, fears about the future or in some cancer patients it can be a side effect of chemotherapy.

“Sleepless nights can leave people feeling fatigued during the day and have a negative effect on their concentration and mental performance. Chronic insomnia can also be extremely frustrating for patients that are feeling tired or exhausted after chemotherapy but are unable to sleep at night.”

The three-year trial, funded by Cancer Research UK, The Beatson Oncology Centre and The Aberdeen Royal Infirmary will recruit 200 patients from the centres in Glasgow and Aberdeen to compare the effectiveness of CBT with the current treatment available for patients from their doctors.

Prof Espie says: “Cognitive behaviour therapy works by teaching people how to change the thoughts and behaviours which cause their insomnia. Patients will effectively learn how to re-programme their body clocks so that they get good sleep at night.”

Patients receiving CBT will be taught various methods to increase their chances of sleep in hour-long classes run over five weeks.

The sessions will include information about lifestyle changes, mental strategies and muscle relaxation techniques that can promote sleep.

Patients in the comparison group will receive standard treatments according to their doctor’s advice.

Prof Espie says: “Patients may be prescribed sleeping pills from their doctors for short periods of time but there is no evidence that they are effective for long-term sleep problems. Drug treatments may also cause negative side-effects and patients may become addicted to them.

“Cognitive behaviour therapy has been scientifically proven to help people with chronic insomnia and we believe it will be a far more effective and healthier option for cancer patients with the condition.”

Researchers will record patients’ sleep patterns before and after treatment and during a six-month follow-up to see whether the new technique leads to longer and uninterrupted hours of sleep.

Dr Lesley Walker, Director of Information at Cancer Research UK says: “Chronic insomnia can severely diminish a person’s ability to function during the day and live life to the full. It’s a common but often neglected condition affecting cancer patients.

“Currently there is no ideal treatment, but we hope Professor Espie’s study will provide us with the evidence to change this in the future.

“It’s vitally important to the charity that we not only develop effective treatments for cancer but also find ways to maintain patients’ quality of life.”