Coping With Scanxiety: Advice From Cancer Patients
What is “Scanxiety?”
“For those who don’t know, scanxiety is the anxiety you have about any scans that will update you on your current status,” says William Yank, an acute lymphoblastic leukemia survivor.
Scanxiety isn’t in the DSM-5 (standard mental disorders classification), but that doesn’t make patients’ experiences with it any less valid. You learn you have cancer usually by a scan of some kind.
A CT scan, PET scan, x-ray, MRI, or a combination of a few usually plays a part in diagnosis. It makes sense that any following scans might be traumatic or anxiety-inducing.
Scanxiety might be closely related to PTSD and/or the fear of relapse. According to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, common symptoms include irritability, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and nausea in the time leading up to an exam.
When Do You Experience Scanxiety?
Scanxiety can happen in the days or weeks leading up to a scan, at the office right before your scan, during the scan, or even on a day when you’re just not feeling well.
Really, scanxiety can affect anyone at any time. The key isn’t predicting when it will happen. Rather, it’s being prepared and having coping mechanisms in place to help you prepare for it if it does hit.
“If I’m not feeling well, or if I have an ache, I freak out. If I have a bruise, I drive myself crazy trying to figure out where it might’ve come from. The anxiety is something that has never gone away. Anything can trigger the fear of relapse,” says another ALL survivor, Veronica Balanza.
Fabiola Lopez is a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, and she says, “I have been in remission for two years, and the weeks leading up to a scan paralyze me. I become so scared because I do not want to fight this disease a third time. I fear losing my job, my hair, my school. I fear losing the sense of control.”
How Do You Cope With Scanxiety?
Be aware of your mindset.
Keeping track of positive things that have happened can help you stay grateful. Also, gaining perspective and being around other cancer patients who have been through similar experiences can help too. You are free to feel angry, sad, confused, or however you need to feel–just always try to make your way back to a positive mindset.
“If you just say out loud the best and worst case scenarios, it helps you ground yourself and realize where you are. It’s something that every cancer patient faces.
Whenever you’re going back in to get a scan or check your status, it’s anxiety-ridden. The best way to cope is to keep a strong head and have a good mindset and believe that things will turn out the way they’re supposed to,“ William says.
Yoga, Meditation, or Breathing Exercises.
Find Healthy Distractions.
Let’s be real, cancer causes a lot of stress. Trying to find healthy ways of distracting yourself can be a great way to alleviate some of that. Maybe you spend more time with family and friends, just try to keep some normalcy, or maybe you travel more.
Shari Sheranian is a metastatic breast cancer thriver. She and her husband have found a great way to cope with scanxiety:
“We tend to plan our vacations around the time of the scans. Sometimes, we’ll go right before a scan. I might be on a two-week cruise and two days later, I’ll have a scan. Other times, we’ll schedule a trip for right after a scan.
We do that because we figure if I get a really bad scan result, and I have to change my treatment, it’d be really nice to have a break from life beforehand. We have gone on a two-week trip every year since my diagnosis and a bunch of little ones in between. I would rather look forward to the next trip than dread the next scan. That’s helped both of us. It’s always in the back of your mind, but that helps.”
Mindfulness & Breathing Practices.
Many people find that some form of exercise, no matter how big or small, helps in their mental and physical recoveries. Have you ever thought about trying yoga? Slowing down and paying attention to your breath can be extremely beneficial. What about mindfulness?
Stephanie Chuang is the founder of The Patient Story and a non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, herself. She says you don’t have to be a meditation guru or yoga master to get the benefits of returning to your breath.
“I took a mindfulness class that helped me slow down my reaction to thinking. I learned that you can’t control what you think and feel, but you can influence how you react to those thoughts and feelings. It calmed me down.
I would try to enjoy everything and live in the present as much as possible. That meant really washing every cup and plate and utensil when I did the dishes instead of rushing through it like a chore. That meant trying to really feel the water on my skin every time I showered instead of rushing through it like another chore. “
Seek Counseling or Therapy.
Oncologists, nurses, and your medical team are focused on healing your body. Possibly one of the best ways you can advocate for yourself and face scanxiety head-on is finding support for your mental health.
If your insurance doesn’t cover therapy, ask your social worker, nurse navigator, or someone on your team you trust to help you find the resources you need. Maybe that just means a support group, or maybe that means you start seeing a therapist.
“I went to counseling with what’s called a psycho-oncologist. She specializes in counseling people who have gone through cancer, are going through cancer or survivorship. I cannot recommend that enough,” says sarcoma survivor, Nicole Body.
We may not know everything about scanxiety yet, but we do know it affects plenty of cancer survivors. Know that you are not alone in this. Your fear and anxiety are valid.
There are people willing to talk to you and support you. Reach out to your friends and family, your medical team, your community, and especially your TPS community. We’d love to connect you with other cancer survivors.
If you need support and don’t know where to look, feel free to email [email protected].