Sleeping Your Way Out of Cancer

We all want more sleep, yet most of us are walking around deprived of this essential element our bodies need. When we haven’t gotten enough sleep, our immune system is lower and our brain function reduced. We don’t have energy for the exercise which reduces our risk. Shall I continue? I believe that there’s a high probability the day that first rogue cell entered my body, I was probably sleep deprived. If I had not been, maybe cancer would have never happened.

Sadly, sleep deprivation has become a badge of honor in our society. We all know a person who resolves, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” or brags, “I’m more productive because I only get five hours a sleep each night.” What these people don’t realize is a lack of sleep could bring death sooner rather than later and their lack of sufficient sleep actually makes them less productive. I don’t know about you, but I want to live longer and work smarter, not harder.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average adult needs seven to nine hours each night. I’m no expert, but I think adding an hour or two if you’re affected by cancer or another illness is a prudent idea. The National Sleep Foundation also states your genes begin to change when you get anything less than six hours a night. Their researchers observed up to 700 different changes that can occur after a week of sleep deprivation.

My truth is, I am preaching about sleep after realizing my own problem two months ago which developed during treatment. Like many of us, I fell into the category of being perpetually exhausted. I would spend my days and nights laying in bed with the TV blaring. Once I was healthy again, falling asleep with the TV continued to be my security blanket and hindering the quality sleep my body craved.

On a long flight home after the holidays, I stumbled along a podcast where the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington was interviewed about her book, The Sleep Revolution. She explained how the majority of us are sleep deprived and as a result, not living up to our full potential. Her recommendation was to create a bedtime routine as we do for our children, who wake up with superhuman energy. Yes, some of this has to do with youth, but some of it has to do with the quality and quantity of sleep they get each night.

Taking Ariana’s advice, I began putting myself to bed. I turn on my salt lamp. I take a bath or shower. I dress myself in comfortable pajamas and not the holey, old t-shirt I used to sleep in. I take my pills. I rub some lavender oil behind my ears. I write a list of everything I’m grateful for. I read a book for enjoyment until I start to nod off. I turn the lamp off and fall asleep until the birds are chirping. There’s no cell phone in the room, no TV and no iPad. The verdict – I am sleeping nine hours a night and waking up more refreshed than ever. It’s been two months and I haven’t napped during the day once, which used to be a regular occurrence.

While undergoing treatment, most patients complain about either not having the energy to get out of bed or not being able to sleep at all. I get it and I say, during treatment, you need to do what works for you and addresses the immediate need. If you’re too tired, drag yourself out for 20 minutes of exercise and then back to bed if you’re still exhausted – if you can. If you can’t sleep, try putting yourself to bed like mom did when you were a kid. And when all else fails, talk to your doctor. Let them know how you’re sleeping and any challenges you’re having around the subject. I can guarantee you’re not the only patient who’s ever encountered this problem, so chances are, you’re doctor has a solution for improving the situation. And like everything, be persistent. Especially if you have a history of cancer. One of the best healing mechanisms of the body is triggered by sleep and don’t you want all those mechanisms working at their full capacity?

I can see some of your faces. You might be a parent, someone with a demanding job and/or that person who has never been a good sleeper. I’m here to politely acknowledge your challenge, but then Arianna Huffington, the National Sleep Foundation and I are here to tell you, it’s imperative you prioritize sleep. Put your mask on first before assisting others. Prioritize it above everything else and you’ll be so much better at everything else. And most important, you’ll be healthier and increase your odds of overcoming and avoiding disease.

Check out the National Sleep Foundation’s site, for some interesting articles, statistics and recommendations on getting better sleep.

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Review: When Breath Becomes Air


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Over the summer, a friend asked if I read, Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air”. I had not, but look it up and was immediately flooded with anxiety. A 35-year-old neurosurgeon diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer’s thoughts on life and dying. Deciding the book was to close to home,  I added it to my list of 2017 fear conquering goals. Only the book wouldn’t go away and appeared on my Amazon recommendations and in the front section of every bookstore I entered. I concided and purchased it because I felt like the universe was telling me to I needed to read this book and I’m glad I did.

img_2308Before getting into the major takeaways, it should be acknowledged from a writing standpoint, Dr. Kalanithi “spun gold”. He strung his story together with complexity, elegance and creativity and it’s no doubt he found his true callings by being both a writer and a doctor.     

In terms of his disease, I feel being a physician was a blessing and a curse. Obviously, he was knowledgeable to the medical and scientific aspects, often to a fault.

“I began to suspect that being so close to the fiery light of such moments only blinded me to their nature.” He knew enough to ask his oncologist the Kaplan-Meier survival rates and his oncologist knew enough not to answer, but that he would look them up on his own.  Eventually, Kalanithi realized, “detailed statistics are made for research halls, not hospital rooms,” a philosophy I wished more doctors adopted.

At the debut of his illness he appeared to struggle and eventually come to grips with the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of disease.  I’ve come to learn these are some of the biggest oversights by our doctors. Call me naive, but I’m a firm believer in positivity and faith and I think Dr. Kalanithi discounted these aspects early on, but eventually confronted them, when he said, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicted on it’s inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.

Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of the human experience.”

I think “When Breath Becomes Air” should be annual reading for doctors if only to have both a peer’s and patient’s insight into illness.  Dr. Kalanithi explained,“How little do doctors understand the hells through which we put patients.” Also, to reaffirm, “Doctors invade the body in every way imaginable. They see people at their most vulnerable, their most scared, their most private. They escort them into the world, and then back out. Seeing the body as matter and mechanism is the flip side to easing the most profound human suffering.”

Throughout the book, there were many relatable moments. Early on when Dr. Kalanithi said, “Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering,” and “Even when the cancer was in retreat, it cast long shadows.” And the most relatable theme for me personally – the biggest fear not being death, but leaving a spouse alone and “promising her one life and giving her another.”

Unfortunately, Paul Kalanithi passed away while writing this book, but in my eyes, it’s actually quite complete. His widow wrote the epilogue and beautifully summarized their journey through illness, “Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult-sometimes almost impossible-they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.”

Now, if you haven’t read, “When Breath Becomes Air”, go out and buy two copies – one for you and one for your oncologist.

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Paul Kalanithi (1977-2015)