If you have cancer or are a cancer survivor, you’ll likely undergo medical imaging scans to screen for, diagnose, stage or monitor your cancer for recurrence and progression.
Getting a scan can be stressful for many people—but especially for people with cancer or in remission. It can stir up all kinds of memories and emotions. This feeling is so common that the term “scanxiety” was coined to describe it.
What is scanxiety?
“Scanxiety is a common and important clinical problem,” said Rena Szabo, PsyD, psycho-oncology section director at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center at Banner Gateway Medical Center. “The anxiety is physical and emotional. Anxiety often comes when you face things out of your control, and it impacts your body, mind and quality of life.”
Scans may take you back to the memories of waiting for a possible cancer diagnosis. You can feel anxious waiting for scan results and about the scan itself, such as fear of pain or claustrophobia.
“When you become anxious, this causes your body to release adrenaline and other hormones, which may increase heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar,” Dr. Szabo said. “It may cause nightmares or show up as intrusive thoughts or increased moodiness.”
Other symptoms may include:
- Muscle tightness or tension
- Lightheaded, faint or dizzy feeling
- Shortness of breath
Symptoms of scanxiety vary from person to person and can occur at different times of the testing process. “It often shows up weeks before the scan, days before the scan, on the day of the scan and even continues after the scan leading up to the results,” Dr. Szabo said.
How can I manage my scanxiety?
If you or a loved one is undergoing follow-up scans after cancer treatment, Dr. Szabo shared some recommendations for coping with scanxiety during and after treatment.
Communicate with your health care team. “Transparent, genuine communication with all members of your health care team is important,” Dr. Szabo said. It is the best way to raise any concerns you may have about the scan.
Letting your provider know that you have scanxiety will help foster a discussion about how and when you will receive results. Remember that you are the one going through the scan, so your concerns matter.
Identify unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapy or psycho-oncology support from a health psychologist can be used to identify and help change your thought patterns, feelings and behaviors.
Practice ways to relax. Deep breathing is a powerful relaxation technique that provides instant stress release. Breathing exercises work anytime, anywhere—in your bed or while getting your scan. You can also try guided imagery, massage, audio mindfulness meditations, distraction and relaxation techniques. These exercises can help you stay in the present moment.
Exercise outdoors. Go for a walk or hike, jog through the park or bike along the beach. Being out in nature can help release more feel-good hormones and provide a distraction.
Set time limits on “worry time.” Set aside time (about 10 to 15 minutes) to worry. You can healthily express this worry by writing it down or sharing it with a trusted friend. Setting a time limit can help control scanxiety by allowing you to say when and how much time worry will take up during your day.
Join a support group. Find a support group that understands what you are going through because they have lived through it. Discussing your feelings can help you realize you are not alone and may allow you to learn new ways to cope with scanxiety.
Eat a healthy diet. Fresh, wholesome foods can boost your energy levels, combat fatigue, and provide essential nutrients to strengthen your body and balance your mood. Avoid sugary snacks and processed foods.
Make your scan as comfortable as possible. Discuss with the technician options for using music, a blanket, eye covers and headphones during your scan to decrease stress.
Bring someone with you. Bring a supportive friend or family member when you get your results. It’s reassuring to have someone who cares about you by your side.
Ask about medication. Talk to your health care team about your scanxiety symptoms. If you have exhausted coping techniques and are still anxious, they may recommend anxiety-reducing medicines for you to take leading up to or during a scan.
Avoid starting supplements or medications without first speaking with your health care team to ensure safety and sidestep negative drug interactions.
If you feel stressed about an upcoming scan or test or are experiencing anxiety waiting for biopsy results, rest assured that you’re not alone. Scanxiety is very common for cancer patients who are undergoing treatment or in remission.
Manage your anxiety by focusing on the things you can control. Hopefully, the shared tips are helpful ideas for managing scanxiety.
Want to speak with a licensed mental health specialist?
Schedule an appointment with a psycho-oncology provider.
Call the Banner Behavioral Health Appointment Line at (800) 254-4357.
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