A research program in Alberta is helping cancer survivors overcome treatment-induced insomnia using relaxation and stress-reduction techniques.

"Sedatives aren't the long-term solution because sleep becomes dependent on the medication," said Sheila Garland, a sleep specialist at the University of Calgary. "This study is finding effective, natural methods to help patients and survivors improve the quality of their sleep."

Chronic insomnia is often the result of abnormal sleep patterns caused by the stress of a diagnosis and some cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, said Garland.

Garland said about one-third of all cancer patients develop persistent sleep problems as a result of oncology treatment.

'Insomnia doesn't go away on its own once it becomes chronic. It needs some sort of intervention.' —Sheila Garland, sleep specialist

I-CAN Sleep, a joint research initiative between Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary, is the first Canadian study aimed at improving the sleeping patterns of cancer patients and survivors.

"Insomnia doesn't go away on its own once it becomes chronic," said Garland. "It needs some sort of intervention."

The program places participants into one of two research streams that test different methods of relaxation, stress reduction and sleep-promoting behaviour.

One stream, said Garland, focuses on how relaxing the mind can relax the body and lead to sleep. The other is interested in testing how relaxing the body can relax the mind, allowing the participant to have a restful.

Participants are asked to maintain a sleep journal and attend weekly therapy sessions for the duration of the study.

More participants wanted

More than 80 cancer survivors between the age of 30 and 88 have already taken part in the program, which lasts for two months for each participant.

'Now, despite ongoing cancer treatment, my energy is far more than what it has been over the past three years.' —Kent Parlee, sleep program participant

Kent Parlee, 46, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006, completed program in April and is sleeping at least 6.5 hours a night. That is more than twice as much as the two to three fitful hours he had been getting.

"I had an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion," said Parlee. "I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Now, despite ongoing cancer treatment, my energy is far more than what it has been over the past three years. I'm rested, and my mind is sharper."

A Calgary-wide campaign launched in May is looking to attract about 80 more adult candidates, who should preferably be in remission from cancer during the study.

About 94,000 Albertans are living with cancer and 16,000 new cases are diagnosed every year, according to the researchers.

The program is scheduled to finish in Fall 2011.