Ovarian cancer is a cancer that starts in the ovaries, the reproductive glands that produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Any illness or disease that impacts the body’s hormones or causes a hormonal imbalance will also tend to cause other symptoms. In ovarian cancer, one such common symptom is night sweats — episodes of heavy or excessive sweating during the night.
Though frequently associated with menopause (when menstrual cycles end), night sweats can be caused by ovarian cancer treatments, as well as the cancer itself.
As their name suggests, night sweats are defined as episodes of extreme sweating that take place at night, most often while you’re sleeping. If you’ve ever woken up and your pajamas or sheets were wet with sweat, then you’ve experienced an episode of night sweats. Night sweats may also be accompanied by chills and a racing heartbeat.
Many people also find that night sweats are uncomfortable and disrupt their sleep, especially for those with ovarian cancer (as well as other types of cancer, like breast cancer). Aside from the discomfort of these episodes, night sweats and other symptoms of ovarian cancer — such as nausea, bloating, and abdominal pain — can cause difficulty sleeping.
How often a person experiences night sweats can vary. Cancer-related night sweats, in particular, are typically more frequent than those caused by hormonal changes. However, as one MyOvarianCancerTeam member shared, the frequency of your night sweats may change throughout your diagnosis.
“When I started this journey, I had issues with hot flashes and night sweats … . I was told there wasn’t much to be done about it, but it really only lasted for a few months,” they said. “Every once in a while now, I’ll have a hot flash, but they are few and far between, and the night sweats are nonexistent now.” They advised another member, “Hopefully, your body will also adjust in a couple of months.”
Some people may mistake night sweats for hot flashes — sudden, intense feelings of warmth in the face, neck, and chest. Hot flashes are a common occurrence if your body is going through a natural or surgical hormonal change, such as menopause or removal of the ovaries.
Hot flashes that occur in the nighttime may resemble night sweats, causing you to wake up hot and covered in sweat. However, the difference between the two is in their names — a hot flash is a sudden period during which you start to feel warm or flushed, sometimes resulting in your face, neck, or chest turning red. The heat will often spread from your face to the rest of your body, and you will feel hot all over.
If a hot flash at night causes your body to become overheated, it may turn into an episode of night sweats as the body attempts to cool itself down. That said, hot flashes do not always turn into night sweats. Some postmenopausal individuals with hot flashes experience them at any time of day. The severe hot flashes that lead to night sweat episodes only take place at night, often waking you up from your sleep.
Most cases of night sweats are not related to cancer or cancer treatment — they are more commonly caused by changes in hormone levels. When hormone levels drop (as they do during menopause), the part of the brain that controls body temperature and other functions, called the hypothalamus, misreads the signal your body is sending and believes that your body is overheated. The body’s nervous-system message carrier, epinephrine, transmits the message your brain receives. Your body then tries to eliminate the heat by dilating blood vessels close to the skin, which you feel as warmth. This rise in peripheral body temperature is what triggers perspiration. It’s the body attempting to cool itself down.
That said, night sweats may be among the early symptoms of cancers like ovarian cancer. And because both ovarian cancer and cancer treatments can cause night sweats, it is likely that someone who has been diagnosed will experience night sweats at some point. Several factors can cause night sweats in a person with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, including radiation therapy, surgery, and some medications.
Certain medications used to manage symptoms and complications of ovarian cancer — including antidepressants and opioid pain medications — can also lead to excessive nighttime perspiration.
Bilateral oophorectomy, or the surgical removal of both ovaries, can cause the body to stop producing the hormone estrogen. Decreased estrogen may lead to early menopause — a symptom of which is night sweats.
As one MyOvarianCancerTeam member shared, a hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus) may have the same effect: “My primary care doctor said that when a hysterectomy is done, it’s like putting you through menopause all over again.” The member noted that their night sweats improved over time, writing, “My first two or three months were the worst, and it tapered off in the fourth or fifth month. It gets better.”
If night sweats are impacting your quality of life, talk to your health care team about ways to manage the sweating. Although night sweats may cause stress and interrupt your sleep, the good news is that they can be managed. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), relaxation and breathing exercises, and certain comfort measures may help you prevent or cope with extreme sweating and overheating.
CBT is a form of talk therapy. CBT has been proven to be an effective form of therapy for individuals with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. The purpose of this treatment is to help people change negative behavioral or cognitive (thinking) patterns.
CBT is based on core principles that revolve around becoming aware of unhelpful thinking or behavioral patterns and learning ways to cope with them. CBT is a useful tool if you have night sweats because learned coping skills can help you gain a sense of control over your episodes, in turn allowing you to manage your symptoms.
Other mind-body techniques have been found to be beneficial in managing night sweats. Relaxation, breathing techniques, and other types of mindfulness-based stres-reduction practices can offer similar benefits to CBT. The goal is to relax your body, relieve the stress and negative feelings brought on by the heat, and convince your body to cool down. These techniques may be taught through CBT or shared with you by your oncologist, or they could be techniques you already use to relieve stress on your own.
You can do several things on your own to help keep cool at night. Some at-home solutions you can try include:
To figure out which method or combination of methods works best for you, you should first consult your oncologist.
Having ovarian cancer can be scary and overwhelming, but you aren’t alone. MyOvarianCancerTeam is the social network for people with ovarian cancer and their loved ones. Thousands of members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences of life with ovarian cancer.
Have you experienced night sweats with ovarian cancer? What has helped? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments below or by posting on MyOvarianCancerTeam.