For people who have had a cancer diagnosis, undergoing imaging scans can lead to a variety of emotions. It is common to feel stress or worry in the period before a medical test, during the test, and while waiting for test results. We call these feelings “scanxiety.”
Whether scans are being done for diagnosis, to monitor treatment, or to check for a recurrence, the emotions associated with these scans can be difficult to navigate for many people with cancer and survivors. Having tests and waiting for results can be scary and incredibly unnerving, and different levels of scanxiety can impact a person’s quality of life.
For some people, anxiety or stress can begin as soon as a scan is recommended or scheduled. People may have trouble eating or sleeping, they may seem moody or preoccupied, or they may simply feel out of control. Increased heart rate, irritability, sweaty palms, and nausea are all common symptoms that people experience before a scan. And any symptoms a person experiences before a scan, even if they are minor, can quickly cause fear about cancer recurrence. Other people find the scans themselves very difficult and may experience heightened feelings of claustrophobia during the scan or sensitivity to drinking contrast or having a needle placed into a vein.
The main reason it is common for people to experience scanxiety is that many of them have already lived through receiving news of negative results from earlier scans. They remember those experiences, and those memories can amplify feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and helplessness.
Unfortunately, scans are often an essential part of cancer treatment and survivorship care, so it’s important to learn how to recognize scanxiety and its effect on you and those you care for, as well as to think about how to lessen its burden. I think one of the most important things people experiencing scanxiety can do is to identify its physical effects on them. Recognizing how your body reacts to scanxiety can help you better understand your stress response. Faster breathing, headaches, and muscle pains can all be symptoms of stress, and understanding those connections can give you insight in how to regulate the tension when it occurs. Techniques to help lessen the burden of scanxiety include distraction, meditation, and support from those you love.
I encourage people to understand that scanxiety is a normal response. Acknowledge that this is hard, and treat yourself with compassion. It may be helpful to know that cancer doctors and nurses have scanxiety, too! I get nervous when I’m reviewing studies for my patients, and I want to see that treatment has worked or that there is no evidence of recurrence. However, I know the stress and impact is heaviest on patients and their loved ones.
Another thing that can help is to have a plan in place for getting your test results. Plan for when and how you will receive your results. Now with electronic medical records, scan results can be posted automatically on your electronic medical portal, sometimes even before your medical team has reviewed them. Seeing these results without context and without the ability to ask questions or have a plan for next steps can lead to increased worry and anxiety.
Ask your care team when to expect the results, who will deliver them to you, and how they will be delivered, such as by phone, during a face-to-face appointment, or on a patient portal. That way, you are not wondering and worrying over a period of days about when you will hear back. This knowledge is empowering, and it can help you manage the uncertainty while you are anticipating the results.