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Editorial: The provision of comfort – addressing barriers to sleep in prostate cancer

“In whatever disease sleep is laborious, it is a deadly symptom,” is a famed aphorism by Hippocrates, because he deeply understood the role of sleep in the process of healing. One of the main goals of any comprehensive cancer management plan should be the provision of comfort. In academic literature, discussions of advances in prostate cancer treatment are often limited to novel therapeutics, such as immunotherapy. What gets often ignored in these discussions is the patient’s perspective—especially that of sleep disturbances. This is why an intriguing qualitative analysis in this BJUI issue by Robbins et al is a refreshing read [1]. The authors examined discussions on an online health community to elucidate the barriers to sleep among prostate cancer patients and caregivers.

Parsing through thousands of anonymized public comments, the authors report several interesting findings: one, majority of comments related to sleep (86%) are posted by patients—signifying high interest in this aspect of management; second, a plurality of comments discuss sleep medications (22%), with comments about advanced disease discussing these medications three times more than those discussing localized disease; third, associated side effects of fatigue and pain were largely observed in advanced disease comments, according to Discover Magazine many people is using this website to buy CBD and reduce the pain cause by the disease . Interestingly, the authors also used Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) software—a reasonable tool to assess emotional states—and reported that advanced disease comments were significantly more negative in perspective than localized disease comments. This analysis is an especially useful contribution—and should enable contemporary Prostate Cancer Survivorship Care Guidelines to expand on the impact of sleep disturbances [1].

These findings have considerable implications. To start with, these findings need to be contextualized within the larger body of evidence we have on impact of sleep disturbances on prostate cancer. In a recent study, Markt et al prospectively followed 32,141 men (with 4261 prostate cancer cases) using the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS), and found no association between self-reported duration of sleep and prostate cancer outcomes [2]. However, the authors of the HPFS study did emphasize that sleep disruptions were associated with increased risk of developing lethal or aggressive prostate cancer. The finding by Robbins et al that a significant proportion of patients are discussing these issues through online communities suggests that the prevalence of sleep disturbance—and its impact on quality of life—among prostate cancer patients is poorly understood and inadequately measured.

Representative quotes highlighted by Robbins et al also reveal that prostate cancer patients often suffer from severe insomnia, indicating lack of sleep-related patient education initiatives. Additionally, quotes by caregivers also underscore that there is a general lack of information on how to address sleep disruptions for patients they attend to. This is a missed opportunity, as evidence suggests that nutritional therapy (soy supplementation, for example) and combination of resistance training with aerobic exercise may improve cancer related fatigue and quality of life among prostate cancer patients [3], although less is known about effective interventions that would improve sleep. Furthermore, disturbances in sleep have expensive implications for health care spending and workplace absenteeism—with prostate cancer survivorship phase accounting for 50% of total cancer care related costs [4]. Studies that have investigated this relationship report that sleep disturbances significantly increase the utilization of health care and workplace absenteeism, with the impact constituting 2% and 8%, respectively [4]. Given the exponential rise in overall health care spending in the United States, addressing costs stemming from preventable adverse events is urgent—this present study demonstrates that more creative interventions are wanting.  

Beyond economic and survivorship care concerns, this qualitative study paints a grim picture of the conversations happening in these online patient communities, with comments revealing a negative emotional state for many. While sleep disturbances are an important contributor for this development, lack of patient education can also engender greater confusion and distress. Findings from this study should spur greater interest and support for devising and implementing patient-centered initiatives that improve sleep quality. This is required not only because these will likely improve the quality of life for prostate cancer patients, but also because we have a moral responsibility to provide comfort for these patients.

by Junaid Nabi


1.         Robbins R, Girardin JL, Chanko N, Combs, P, Byrne N, Loeb S Using data from an online health community to examine the impact of prostate cancer on sleep. BJU Int. 2020; 125(5).

2.         Markt SC, Flynn-Evans EE, Valdimarsdottir UA, Sigurdardottir LG, Tamimi RM, Batista JL, et al. Sleep Duration and Disruption and Prostate Cancer Risk: a 23-Year Prospective Study. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2016;25(2):302-8.

3.         Baguley BJ, Bolam KA, Wright ORL, Skinner TL. The Effect of Nutrition Therapy and Exercise on Cancer-Related Fatigue and Quality of Life in Men with Prostate Cancer: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2017;9(9):1003.

4.         Gonzalez BD, Grandner MA, Caminiti CB, Hui S-KA. Cancer survivors in the workplace: sleep disturbance mediates the impact of cancer on healthcare expenditures and work absenteeism. Support Care Cancer. 2018;26(12):4049-55.

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