Calgary sleep study aims to help young cancer survivors sleep better

It's a bitter irony that many kids who beat cancer are then challenged by an everyday function we often take for granted – a good night's sleep.

Bad sleep patterns developed during treatment make kids feel exhausted and socially isolated years later

Leland Rhyason says feeling tired has been a normal part of life ever since he was diagnosed with leukemia seven years ago. (Evelyne Asseline/CBC)

It's a bitter irony that many kids who beat cancer are then challenged by an everyday function we often take for granted – a good night's sleep. 

After her son Leland was diagnosed with leukemia seven years ago, sleep seemed like the least of Traci Rhyason's concerns.

The pair battled through the long hospitalizations, the intensive therapies, and the frequent middle-of-the-night visits by medical staff, all without realizing how those combined stressers were quietly eroding their sleep patterns. 

Leland was just two years old at the time.

Developing bad sleep habits

For the next four years of treatment, the Rhyasons would spend long nights at the hospital, sleeping in the same room, and finding comfort in knowing the other was near whenever they were suddenly woken. 

A habit began to form, and eventually, the two couldn't sleep separately, even at home.

"He's nervous when I'm not sleeping with him, but I also have that exact same thing in return," Rhyason said.

Leland's cancer treatment successfully came to an end in 2014. But the bad sleep patterns persisted. 

"​Now that he's not going through treatment...this is a huge deal for us."

Traci Rhyason, right, says the bad sleep patterns developed during treatment have hampered both her and her son Leland's emotional, social and physical health. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

In the three years since, Leland has struggled with falling and staying asleep, and that has taken a toll on his physical, social, and emotional health, said his mom. 

"He doesn't have sleepovers at friends houses from having anxieties about if he wakes up in the middle of the night and can't fall back asleep, and I'm not there to help him."

For Leland, it's hard to remember what it was like to not constantly feel tired.

"I'm used to being tired," he said. "If I'm playing at recess and stuff like that, I get too tired easily. Sometimes, I just feel like it isn't the real world, because I get too tired."

New research study launches

Fiona Schulte, a psychologist at Alberta Children's Hospital, said she has come across many other children and families going through the same thing.

She and other researchers with Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary are trying to better understand the scope of the problem so that they can develop therapies to address the issue.

Fiona Schulte, psychologist at Alberta Children's Hospital, says it's common for families to struggle with sleep well after cancer treatment. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

"Clinically, I know that it's a problem. What's nice about this research is that it will show us systematically that it's a problem, and hopefully look at why."

This study is unique because it examines sleep patterns in short-term survivors, who are between two and seven years off their therapy, she said.

Past studies have documented broken sleep patterns in those who are 15 to 20 years past treatment, as well as those who are newly diagnosed, she said. 

Schulte hopes this research will enable doctors to address sleep issues at the point of diagnosis and reinforce that during treatment.

"I think the acknowledgement alone that there are sleep issues is huge," Rhyason said.

"It's so overlooked, and it'd be nice if right from the start ... that it's explained to you that yes, there's issues. It'll be nice to be able to have some support in that area."

Researchers are looking for children between the ages of 8-18 who have had leukemia, as well as healthy children for a comparison group. They hope to enrol 100 families, 50 for each group. For more information about the sleep study, visit the website or phone 403-220-5086.

With files from Evelyne Asselin


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