Unless you’ve had cancer, you’re probably not familiar with the term scanxiety. It’s the overwhelming feeling of anxiety that cancer survivors have leading up to a follow-up scan and the unpredictability of its outcome.
According to Linda Hutkin-Slade, a clinical oncology social worker at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, it affects not only survivors, but those in treatment or remission too. “Every cancer patient is affected by scanxiety, and it’s a normal human response. Some patients push through, but others can be incapacitated,” she says.
“Everyone is different, but generally it’s about the unknown or news we’d rather not hear, such as the cancer has spread, returned or the treatment is not working as hoped,” she says.
Patient Sunny Golden was diagnosed with stage 3 non-smoking-related lung cancer in 2014 and understands the term very well. Although she’s better now, every three months the follow-up scans trigger scanxiety.
“Initially before the scan, it was weeks of crying, hoping for the best, but thinking the worst,” Golden says. “My cancer was in my lymph nodes, so it could spread anytime.”
“Now that some time has passed, I try to block it out of my mind in between scans. I try to live cancer-free, but the days prior to the test are still stressful. No sleep and worrying about ‘What if …?’” she says.
Whether it’s a CT scan, MRI or an X-ray, the waiting game can be nerve-racking. Patients often exhibit excessive ongoing worry and tension; feelings of dread; new symptoms of poorly defined aches and pains; irritability; restlessness; headaches; and difficulty concentrating.
There are ways to manage scanxiety. “Close friends were my strength,” says Golden. “They supported, listened, nurtured and prayed with me. As time goes on, I’m less needy, but the fear is always there.”
“My lung cancer support group and ‘Lunch and Learn’ sessions are also helpful. I feel like I’m not alone; I get good advice and great information.”
Here are five tips to help cope with scanxiety:
- Acknowledge and take control.
Accept that you have scanxiety and talk to someone about it, journal or figure out exactly what you’re worried about. Don’t underestimate your loved ones; educate them, so they can better support you.
- Schedule wisely.
Ask for morning appointments so you don’t have to wait. Avoid a Friday or the day before a holiday, so you don’t have to wait longer for results.
- Go to your happy place.
Surround yourself with positive, reassuring people who will put you at ease. Play a fun game, listen to music, read or binge-watch your favorite TV show.
- Use resources.
Try relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, praying or positive visualization. Download a meditation app or podcast, or get your body moving and take a walk.
- Don’t go alone, and plan something fun afterward.
Take a friend who is supportive and calm with you. Afterward you can do something fun, like go to a movie or lunch.
For the news media: To talk with a Sharp expert about scanxiety for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.