Scanxiety: Coping with Fear About Cancer Tests

Aug. 4, 2016

Woman in CT scanIf you have cancer or are a cancer survivor, you’ll likely undergo tests to determine the effectiveness of your treatments or to learn if your cancer is in remission. Getting a scan can be stressful — evoking memories of treatment or fear of the unknown. This feeling is so common that the term “scanxiety” was coined to describe it.

Dr. Michelle Shayne,a breast oncologist and the clinical co-director of Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Judy DiMarzo Survivorship Program, answers questions and offers advice on managing scanxiety.

Is it normal to feel anxiety when it comes to follow-up scans?

Everyone who has a scan performed feels anxious to some degree. It’s natural to imagine a worst-case scenario that could evolve as a result of the information a scan could provide.

One suggestion I often make for people who feel nervous before learning the results of imaging is that — regardless what we see on a scan — we can always use the information to improve the situation.

Sometimes the results tell us we don’t see any cancer that has spread outside its site of origin. Those results give us a sense of relief. Even when we do find that cancer has spread, we can usually craft a plan to control the disease so it doesn’t continue to spread and cause more problems. Either way, having that information helps us all be more prepared.

What can I do to reduce anxiety leading up to a scan?

Many patients and survivors find ways to cope with upcoming scans. Relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation can be helpful. Listening to music or spending time with loved ones in the time leading up to your scan may help you take your mind off it.

On the day of the scan, some people like to bring a friend or family member with them so they have someone to talk to and keep them distracted while in the waiting room. You could also bring along a favorite book or magazine to read. Sometimes it’s nice to plan something fun to do after the scan, such as dinner with a good friend, to keep you looking forward.

What if my doctor says a follow-up scan is not recommended or that it’s time to stop having them?

If there is something going on that a scan will help us understand, it is better to know about it. With that said, there are many times when a scan isn’t necessarily helpful. When an oncologist says a patient should not get a scan, it is a recommendation based on research because the information the scan will provide would add very little to the care at that point in time.

It can make some people uncomfortable to think that a scan is not recommended, but remember that scans have their limitations and they can’t give us all the answers. At those times, trust your oncologist and allow them to decide when it makes the most sense to order a scan and when it’s best not to have a scan performed.

What should I do if I need more support or someone to talk to about this topic?

Be open with your oncologist about what you’re feeling. He or she may be able to offer insights that could ease your fears based on your individual situation. Also, be aware of available support resources, such as talking with a social worker, attending a support group meeting or setting up a survivorship visit.

Being able to discuss what you’re feeling with other cancer survivors can help you realize you are not alone and may allow you to learn new ways to cope with scanxiety and other lasting effects of cancer treatment.