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Coping with Scanxiety

Scanxiety is a term that refers to the anxiety or fear related to follow-up (or initial) scans for cancer or any condition that requires surveillance.

What causes scanxiety?

In my experience, it has always been the fear of the unknown, the hurry up and wait. In the beginning, it’s the initial workup. This often includes mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, and biopsies. Depending on the involvement of your cancer it can also mean staging studies. Staging studies tell us if cancer has spread to other body parts. These might be the most anxiety-provoking because the outcome can potentially change your treatment plan and prognosis.

Here are some helpful tips for dealing with scanxiety:

1. Know that you are not alone.

Being inside a scanner can feel isolating, lying there with nothing but a scratchy gown, maybe some music, but mostly, your thoughts. This is when the mind begins to wander, and that feeling of loneliness kicks in. You might feel your heart rate or breathing start to increase. This is where I’ve found two things to be helpful. First, know that even though you are the only physical person at that moment in the room, there are many others all over the world doing the same scan at the same time. Being human, we crave connectedness and the comfort it brings. Second, sometimes it helps to tell your support group before going, whether it be loved ones or your online support. Their words of encouragement or similar situations provide comfort. On the other hand, you may not want to draw attention to having a scan. You might feel that no news is good news until you share otherwise. That’s okay too. You’re the boss.

2. Focus on what’s in your control.

Your provider may be in control of the scan, so take control of everything else! Find out if your test needs prior authorization from your insurance company or if you can schedule it immediately after it’s ordered. Having a date that works for you is also important. If you have work or other appointments that day, allow yourself plenty of time so you aren’t rushed. No extra anxiety is needed that day. Consider picking a time when you are the first appointment so it’s not on your mind all day. Ask your provider how long the results take and when you should expect to hear from them. If the results typically show on your online patient portal before your provider tells you, decide if it’s something you want to see. Sometimes results or medical terms sound scary, but they don’t necessarily mean bad news.

You may turn to God (or the higher power you believe) for comfort. Whatever prayer looks like for you, it is meditative, it is peaceful, it is a surrender of fear.

3. Anti-scanxiety techniques

Relaxation breathing techniques and meditation can be wonderful before, during, and after your scan. There are many free relaxation and meditation smartphone apps. InsightTimer, Calm and MindShift CBT are a popular few. Always check with your radiology department if you are going to be practicing deep breathing techniques during the time of your scan, as many tests require you to be extremely still, and to breathe “normally”.

Bring a book or magazine while waiting for your turn as opposed to looking at your phone. Avoid scrolling social media while you wait; this helps avoid coming across something alarming, sad, or triggering.

4. Bring your support.

Bringing a supportive person in your life to your scan may help ease your scanxiety and can make the time go by quicker. Knowing you’ll see them right after gives a sense of ease and something to look forward to. After the scan, do something that brings you joy and will take your mind off of the waiting game. This usually means good food or shopping! This circles back to focusing on what’s in your control. You can’t change that you don’t have the results right now. You can, however, relax and treat yourself for not only making it through a stressful situation but also turning it into an enjoyable experience with a loved one.

5. Stay busy and productive.

This doesn’t mean adding more to your plate at work or picking up more responsibilities. What can you do to improve your health emotionally and physically? Maybe you begin a morning journaling routine or set a goal to walk 30 minutes every evening after dinner. Or maybe you’re going to scan Pinterest for healthy meal prep ideas for your upcoming week. Creating new habits that encourage a healthy lifestyle leaves you feeling accomplished and inspired. This is the healthy distraction we all need!

So, remember, the next time you have an upcoming scan, it’s normal to feel anxious and worried. You are not alone in those feelings or the moment of your scan. Seek the support you need leading up to, during, and after. And know that while you can’t control the results, you can manage the control it has over you.

You’ve got this. I’m rooting for you. We all are.

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About the Author
Dr. Lauren Mackie, DNP, FNP-C is a freelance medical writer, specializing in breast health. She is also a doctoral-prepared family nurse practitioner in oncologic breast surgery. She can be reached at lauren@mackiemedicalwriting.com for inquiries. Opinions are her own, and should not be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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