Night sweats are common side effects that both cancer survivors and patients, alike, often face. Radiation therapies, certain prescription medications, and some cancer-related surgeries can even worsen the frequency and intensity of a patient's night sweats. Waking up in the middle of the night with wet bedsheets and pajamas is never ideal, but there are ways to manage night sweats.
What are night sweats?
Night sweats are periods of extreme sweating that occur while we are sleeping. They often coincide with an increased heart rate, and the patient can begin experiencing “the chills” shortly afterward. Sweating is just nature’s way of regulating the body’s temperature.
There are many possible causes of this uncomfortable condition, including autoimmune disorders, bacterial infections, and hormonal changes, but cancer patients often experience night sweats. Unlike the more sporadic episodes of hot flashes experienced by women undergoing hormonal changes during menopause, cancer-related night sweats tend to occur more regularly – perhaps every night.
What cancers cause night sweats?
Lymphoma and leukemia patients often report night sweats in conjunction with fevers, weight loss, chronic fatigue, and excessive bruising. Excessive perspiration is also a common side effect for patients undergoing treatment for adrenal and carcinoid tumors.
In truth, many cancer survivors acknowledge that consistent night sweats were part of their recovery process, mainly if their treatment plans consisted of hormonal therapies. Patients battling breast cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and all types of gynecologic cancers tend to fall into this category.
While it's commonly known that women get night sweats due to swings in their hormones, especially if they are breast or gynecologic cancer survivors, men also experience this side effect. Because the testes produce the hormone testosterone, many men undergoing surgery for testicular or prostate cancer can experience hot flashes and excessive sweating as a post-surgery side effect.
Estrogen or gonadotropin-releasing therapies can produce night sweats in both men and women, as well. Sometimes, certain medically-prescribed opioids, antidepressants, and steroids that cancer patients use can also induce excessive sweating.
What do cancer survivors do to avoid night sweats?
Thanks to the millions of cancer survivors who have come before you, there is hope. Instead of just suffering through wet bedsheets and irregular sleeping patterns, there are several ways in which you can help your body to regulate its core temperature better and reduce the regularity and severity of night sweats.
- Consider replacing your standard bed pillows with a cool gel alternative. Women’s Health Magazine recommends 12 excellent options. Its #1 choice is the Weekender Ventilated Gel Memory Foam pillow.
- Purchase bed linens and clothing manufactured from only natural fibers or wick-away materials that absorb sweat, draw the moisture away from the skin, and dry relatively quickly.
- Wear loose-fitting, light-weight pajamas.
- Sleep with one leg outside of the covers. Oddly enough, this helps keep your body temperature cool.
- Try taking a cool shower just before bedtime.
- Because we live in Oregon, there is the option to leave the bedroom window cracked on chilly nights. But on warmer nights, turn on the air conditioning, if you have it, or place an oscillating fan next to the bed to help keep the room cool.
- Try to maintain a healthy body weight and exercise regularly, but always check with your oncologist, who can help you create an exercise plan that's right for you.
- Avoid extreme activity just before bedtime - such as exercise.
- Avoid eating spicy foods, drinking alcohol, or drinking hot beverages just before bedtime.
Other home remedies for night sweats
Meditation and relaxation techniques
Research shows that breathing exercises, mediation, and other relaxation techniques can slow the heart rate and lower body temperature. Meditation can also help patients cope with the stress and anxiety of living with cancer, undergoing radiation or chemotherapies, and the seemingly endless visits to the doctor’s office. Many cancer survivors suggest that if you wake up in the middle of the night with night sweats, consider meditation as a means of re-inducing sleep.
According to The Wellness Institute, a study conducted by researchers from the Mind-Body Medicine Research Laboratory at Baylor University indicates that hypnosis can reduce hot flashes and night sweats in menopausal women by as much as 74%.
During this home therapy, a professionally certified hypnotherapist guides you into a deep state of relaxation. While you are in this state, the hypnotist makes suggestions that help your subconscious become more open-minded to positive therapeutic improvements. In the case of night sweats, the hypnotist helps the mind become more aware of the importance of improved regulation of your nighttime body temperature. Not only does hypnosis help reduce night sweats, but you are also more likely to wake up feeling more refreshed and less stressed.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicinal practice involving the insertion of tiny needles into the skin at specific points of the body to rebalance the “yin” and “yang” of the lifeforce. One medical study found that acupuncture treatments can sometimes help menopausal women overcome hot flashes and night sweats. With a success rate of about one-third, the benefits can last up to six months.
While needles can be a concern for some patients, it's nearly painless to have acupuncture performed by a professional. Be sure you talk to the acupuncturist before explaining your circumstances and that you're a cancer survivor.
Are there prescription drug therapies for night sweats?
While estrogen therapies often help both men and women overcome symptoms of night sweats and hot flashes, these hormonal treatments are not always appropriate depending on the type of cancer that you might have. For example, many doctors will not prescribe estrogen therapies to women who have ever received an estrogen-positive breast cancer diagnosis.
However, your doctor might consider many other medications useful in helping you overcome hot flashes and night sweats – drugs like megestrol, medroxyprogesterone, clonidine (a high blood pressure medication), some anticonvulsants, and certain antidepressants. Just be sure to discuss your options with your doctor first. Depending on the medication, there can be other possible side effects like dry mouth, dizziness, or even insomnia.