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Anyone affected by cancer understands the toll it can take on every aspect of life. For cancer patients and survivors, treatment and recovery can be exhausting and painful, while getting the deep rest that’s critical for healing is often challenging. 

“We know that a lot of cancer patients and survivors report sleep disturbances and poor quality of sleep as a result of either their diagnosis or treatment,” Dr. Alpa Patel, Ph.D., senior vice president of population science at the American Cancer Society, tells Thrive.  

There’s growing science that quality sleep can help boost health and well-being. But the sleep-cancer connection has been an overlooked area of research, with more attention focused on nutrition and exercise, says Dr. Patel. While poor sleep quality may be associated with the risk of developing some types of cancer, evidence to date has been limited. There’s also limited evidence on how sleep can support patients as they go through treatment and during recovery.

That’s about to change. The American Cancer Society and Sleep Number have launched a  six-year partnership to explore the critical link between quality sleep and cancer outcomes. 

“We need to learn what is causing the sleep disturbances for different types of cancer,” says Dr. Patel, who oversees researchers and scientists in her role at the American Cancer Society. “By identifying the impact of quality sleep on cancer prevention and recovery we want to identify the best interventions and strategies to potentially improve quality of life for cancer survivors,” she says. This is essential research, notes Dr. Patel, because there are currently no sleep guidelines for cancer prevention, or for cancer survivors.  

Shelly Ibach, Sleep Number’s President and CEO, is excited about the landmark partnership, which she says “will directly support our company’s purpose — to improve the health and well-being of society through higher-quality sleep.” The impact, she adds, will be “far-reaching, to benefit cancer patients and survivors, and society at large.” 

Leveraging more than 15 billion hours of highly accurate sleep data generated from Sleep Number  360® smart beds, scientists will be studying the effects of cancer on the sleep patterns of patients and survivors, analyzing information such as how long and how efficiently individuals sleep and key biometrics including average heart rate and average breath rate. They will review information from historical and ongoing cancer prevention studies and explore whether sleep deprivation could be a risk factor for cancer. 

“What’s exciting to me is that the technology and the data generated by Sleep Number smart beds will help fuel and accelerate our science and research,” says Dr. Patel. 

For both Dr. Patel and Ibach, the research has personal resonance. “Cancer doesn’t just walk in, it devastates your life. You’re living life and then everything changes,” says Ibach, who lost her husband, George, in October 2017 after an 18-month battle with cancer. “My husband was so full of life and brought joy to everyone around him and all of a sudden, boom, he has a diagnosis of leukemia. The next thing, we’re living in the hospital for nine months, it all looks good, and then with a moment’s notice he has hours to live.” 

Ibach points out how important quality sleep is for both caregivers and people grieving the loss of loved ones. “I made sure that I carved out time to sleep whenever I could, because your sleep is obviously disrupted when you’re mourning — but sleep is a healer and it helped me heal mentally, spiritually, and physically.”

Cancer is a subject that is also deeply personal for Dr. Patel, who started volunteering with the American Cancer Society as a teenager following her grandfather’s diagnosis with brain cancer at age 64. “He was out cycling when his hand went numb,” she says. “It turned out he had a brain tumor, a lemon-sized glioblastoma. He went from training for a triathlon to not being able to speak or feed himself in a period of six months — and then he passed away.” Dr. Patel says the experience of losing her beloved grandfather sparked her determination to do whatever she could personally toward finding a cure for cancer. It led directly to her current career and her goal to support cancer patients in terms of prevention, treatment and recovery. 

Her focus moving forward is to establish clear public health sleep guidelines and sleep “prescriptions.” “Wouldn’t it be amazing if when a patient or a survivor of cancer says, ‘I’m struggling with my sleep,’ we can say: ‘here are tailored precision tools, based on your own cancer and treatment history — here is what will work best for you?’”

These kinds of tailored health guidelines, she points out, are already available for cancer patients in nutrition and exercise. “If a breast cancer survivor says ‘I’m challenged with chronic fatigue,’ we can actually prescribe the right amount of cardio to mitigate the side effects of symptoms. Wouldn’t it be great to have sleep prescriptions as well?” 

Dr. Patel’s ultimate goal is to generate enough evidence to spark a movement in the cancer research community around studying sleep in relation to cancer.

It’s a goal well worth pursuing, concludes Ibach. “Cancer is undiscriminating — it affects everyone. Our hope is that sleep guidelines will help eradicate this devastating disease and improve millions of lives. I’m confident we’re going to achieve that. And we are honored to join the American Cancer Society in the fight for a world without cancer.”

Thrive Global and Sleep Number believe quality sleep has a profound impact on health and well-being. Today, this is more important than ever as we look to quality sleep to help boost immunity, increase energy, and improve recovery. Visit sleepnumber.com to find the best sleep solution for you, so you can wake up to your greater purpose.