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Coping with ‘Scanxiety’ and Fear of Cancer Returning

June 05, 2023

Imaging tests are unavoidable if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, but they can cause life-altering anxiety leading up to a scan, during the procedure and in the days or weeks awaiting the results.

There’s even a special name for these emotions among cancer survivors: scanxiety.

 Each scan carries the potential to herald a change in your prognosis and life expectancy. For someone whose cancer is no longer in remission, a scan could be the first step toward restarting a treatment cycle. Or if you suddenly feel unwell, you may find yourself heading in for a fresh scan to see if a new problem has surfaced.

Modern technological advancements can also contribute to your anxiety. It’s not uncommon to be given access to the initial scan result before your doctor has a chance to go over the results with you. This often leaves worried patients attempting to analyze results without knowing exactly what they mean.

There’s no way to predict whether you will experience scanxiety. But it is more common in people who tend to experience anxiety in other parts of their life. If that’s you, don’t hesitate to talk with your doctor ahead of time so that you can work together to develop a plan. But even if you are someone who doesn’t tend to feel anxiety, you could still find yourself grappling with your emotions.

Scanxiety Symptoms

You can break scan-related anxiety into two separate types. The first is the general anxiety over an impending procedure and the inevitable wait for results. The second is anxiety over the actual test. MRI scans, for example, can be tough for people who are rattled by having to spend up to two hours in a tight space with very little movement. Scanxiety symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Tightened muscles
  • Lightheaded, faint or dizzy feeling
  • Nausea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Moodiness
  • Trouble sleeping

Coping Strategies

There are numerous coping strategies you can use to relieve anxiety and its negative impact on your daily life – whether you have previously experienced scanxiety or if you worry that you will. Among the strategies:

Calm yourself: Keep your body at ease through physical or mindfulness activities. For some people this may be jogging or taking a long bike ride. Others may prefer yoga or meditation.

Do something you enjoy: To keep your mind off the test, plan to do something right before or after the procedure. Spend time with family or friends. Go to a sporting event, cooking class, wildlife park or some other favorite activity.

Medications: This option may be particularly valuable if you have extreme anxiety about the test – spending time in an MRI machine, for example. Medications aren’t the first option for relieving anxiety, but they may be beneficial for some patients.

Have a plan: If you’ve experienced anxiety with previous scans, be prepared for your next one. Will you look at the imaging results immediately? Or wait until you can review them with your doctor? Can you make an appointment to talk with your care team in person, or by phone, on the day you receive the results?

Ask for help: There are many services available to help you through your anxiety. Behavioral health professionals can offer coping strategies, while cancer support groups can give you personal perspective and advice.

Talk to your cancer team: If you are struggling, your care providers will do whatever they can to make things easier for you. If you are worried about scans, bring it up during your next appointment so that you can come up with a plan together.

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