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Taking ‘ACTION’

Memorial University sleep study to help cancer survivors


By Kathryn Dalton

The relative survival rate for cancer is better than ever before, meaning that more people will be living as cancer survivors and managing the long-term side effects of the disease and its treatment.

From left are Bob Wakeham, study participant; Dr. Sheila Garland, assistant professor of psychology and oncology; Kathryn Dalton, research co-ordinator; and Sondria Brown, patient co-investigator.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Cancer survivors report that one of the biggest barriers to getting back to “normal” is difficulty with memory, attention and concentration.

Approximately 75 per cent of cancer patients have difficulty remembering things, concentrating, and paying attention after completing cancer treatments. Insomnia, or difficulty falling or staying asleep, is also an extremely common side effect of cancer and poor sleep can make it even harder to think straight.

To address these side effects, a new study called Addressing Cancer Treatment-related Insomnia Online in Newfoundland and Labrador, or ACTION, aims to increase access to a treatment to improve sleep and investigate whether it can also improve cognitive impairments in cancer survivors across the province.

Increasing access to therapy

Dr. Sheila Garland, clinical psychologist, and assistant professor of psychology and oncology at Memorial University, along with her patient partner, Sondria Browne, collaborators at the Dr. H Bliss Murphy Cancer Centre, and other notable researchers across Canada, are conducting the ACTION study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Dr. Sheila Garland
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

ACTION is a four-year study looking to enrol 162 participants, making it the largest of its kind globally.

Study participants will receive cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

Dr. Garland feels it is important to increase access to this therapy.

“CBT-I is recommended as the first line treatment for insomnia, but it is not available in all setting or locations,” she said. “In order to allow individuals from across the province to participate, we have designed the study to allow the treatment and assessments to take place via video in the comfort of participants’ own home on their computer or iPad.”

Improved quality of life

Bob Wakeham recently completed the study and emphasizes the importance of addressing the emotional and psychological repercussions of cancer, such as insomnia.

“The physical side effects of cancer pale in comparison to the psychological effects of cancer, which are long-lasting,” he said.

Mr. Wakeham completed the study in December 2019 and wants other cancer survivors to know that it can make a huge difference in the quality of their lives.

“I highly recommend this study and treatment to people who have had cancer and still suffer from insomnia and all of its repercussions.”

Recruiting study participants

Sondria Browne, the patient co-investigator on the study, was diagnosed with breast cancer and says she knows how it feels to not be able to sleep and the impact that has on one’s cognitive abilities.

“I wish the ACTION study was available when I needed it,” she said. “It would have saved me countless nights of lost sleep and the effect of this on my ability to function the next day.”

The study is looking to recruit individuals who report issues with memory, concentration and attention; have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep; have completed treatments at least 12 months prior to study entry (hormone or maintenance therapies are acceptable); and who are considered cancer-free or in remission.

Newfoundland and Labrador consistently has the highest rate per capita of cancer incidents in Canada, with an estimated 3,800 new cases being diagnosed each year. That’s according to the 2019 Canadian Cancer Society’s statistics.

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