Cancer survivors research how to beat insomnia, 'chemo brain'

Published: Aug. 17, 2018 at 3:23 PM CDT
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We all probably know what it's like to have a rough night's sleep every once in a while, but for many cancer patients and survivors, it's a nightly struggle that can cause long-term problems.

Now some local cancer survivors are participating in new research, hoping to unlock the key to finally getting some zzz's.

"It was like an epiphany. Oh my God, this is really gonna work!" says Brenda Burkart.

"I still have work to do, but I definitely have a number of nights since the program, where I woke up refreshed and with a lot of energy," says Jeff House.

Jeff and Brenda are both proud to say they've beat cancer, and now they've beat insomnia, too.

Like many people, they'd had problems sleeping, but those issues were compounded by the stress of a cancer diagnosis and side-effects of treatments and medications.

"I would fall asleep at my desk," says Brenda, recalling how tired she was during and after radiation treatments for breast cancer.

They both eagerly agreed to enroll in a clinical trial at the HSHS St. Vincent Cancer Research Institute called YOCAS.

It tests non-medication ways of getting good sleep through yoga, education or cognitive therapy.

Brenda was randomly chosen to join the yoga group.

"The first day we did it, I fell asleep on the floor!" says Brenda, smiling.

Before bed, she stretches and does breathing exercises, and within minutes is asleep and stays asleep.

"I think it's calming my mind down. I really do," she says.

Jeff was placed in the cognitive behavioral therapy group.

"I had good sleep habits, but I had a bad sleep attitude," explains Jeff.

His class re-trained him not to worry about waking up and to avoid thoughts about his day ahead.

"You'd peek at the clock and it would be 11:30 and you'd just be disappointed and the attitude would creep in there, and you'd be psyched out," he says.

The treatments also help combat so-called 'chemo brain' by improving focus and concentration.

"We're making patients live longer and longer with cancer. That's a great thing. Now the next step is, how do we make patients live well? And that's really what this thing is trying to do is figuring that out," says Dr. David Groteluschen with Green Bay Oncology and the HSHS St. Vincent Cancer Centers.

Official results and findings are still a few years away, but these survivors hope future patients will find the same success they both did.

"I love being able to get sleep!" adds Brenda.

The next sleep trial starts in October and is accepting patients now.

Those interested should call HSHS St. Vincent Cancer Research Institute at (920) 433-8889, email or visit

Participants must register by Monday, September 10, 2018.

Classes begin Tuesday, October 2, 2018.