News Release
January 10, 2014

Two Behavioral Interventions Help Cancer Patients Struggling with Sleep Issues, Penn Medicine Study Finds

Findings Hold Promise for Individualized Treatment Options for Insomnia

PHILADELPHIA — Cancer patients who are struggling with sleep troubles, due in part to pain or side effects of treatment,  can count on two behavioral interventions for relief  – cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), Penn Medicine researchers report in a new study published online in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. While CBT-I is the gold standard of care, MBSR is an additional treatment approach that can also help improve sleep for cancer patients, the study found.

“Insomnia and disturbed sleep are significant problems that can affect approximately half of all cancer patients,” said lead study author Sheila Garland, PhD, a Clinical Psychology Post-Doctoral Fellow at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center in Integrative Oncology and Behavioral Sleep Medicine.  “If not properly addressed, sleep disturbances can negatively influence therapeutic and supportive care measures for these patients, so it’s critical that clinicians can offer patients reliable, effective, and tailored interventions.”

Estimates suggest that anywhere between 36 to 59 percent of patients with cancer experience disturbed sleep and insomnia symptoms during and after the completion of cancer treatment, with up to 28 percent meeting a formal diagnosis of insomnia.  While there are effective drugs that can help treat insomnia, Garland says that many cancer patients express a desire not to take additional medications due to concerns about side effects and the possibility of developing a dependence on the medication.

The new study involved 111 cancer patients recruited from a cancer center in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to one of two randomly assigned interventions for their insomnia, either CBT-I (47) or MBSR (64). In previous research, MBSR has been shown to reduce distress and improve psychological well-being in patients with cancer. This is the first study to directly compare MBSR to CBT for insomnia in cancer patients.

When assessed three months after completing an eight-week treatment protocol, the researchers found that both CBT-I and MBSR reduced insomnia severity across each group. However, the effects in the CBT-I group occurred more rapidly whereas the MBSR group tended to show more gradual improvement over time. Both groups significantly increased their total sleep time and reduced the amount of time it took them to fall asleep or return to sleep during the night. Both groups also experienced improvements in mood and stress-related symptoms following the interventions.

“That MBSR can produce similar improvements to CBT-I and that both groups can effectively reduce stress and mood disturbance expands the available treatment options for insomnia in cancer patients,” said Dr. Garland. “This study suggests that we should not apply a ‘one size fits all model’ to the treatment of insomnia and emphasizes the need to individualize treatment based on patient characteristics and preferences.”

In addition to Dr. Garland, other Penn authors include Alisa J. Stephens, PhD, from the Perelman School of Medicine’s Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics (CCEB).  Penn authors collaborated with researchers at the University of Calgary and the study was supported by the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute and the Alberta Cancer Board.

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Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 17 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $392 million awarded in the 2013 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2013, Penn Medicine provided $814 million to benefit our community.

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