Managing Scan-Related Anxiety

Posted by Dhirendra Bhatnagar on Aug, 22, 2018 ,  Category: Blog

‘It’s not a part of the medical lexicon, but “scanxiety” is a word that cancer care providers would do well to know.

That’s because it negatively affects a patients’ quality of life.
Even if you understand that the benefits of a scan are likely to far outweigh the risks, it is not uncommon to find yourself nervous and worried when you are scheduled for an imaging test.

This may be the case whether you have no symptoms and are undergoing routine screening, if you are receiving treatment and your doctors are checking your progress or if you are having a scan after treatment to make sure cancer has not returned. In fact, so many people feel fear and anxiety over scans that this particular unease has even picked up a nickname: scanxiety.

If you have experienced nervous episodes and heightened fears in anticipation of a scan, you are not alone. In fact, anxiety in the face of the unknown is a very normal human response. And it is the unknown that we are really afraid of when it comes to scans. In particular, it’s the fear that the “unknown” is news we would rather not hear—that a disease is developing or has returned or that treatment is not working as well as hoped.

When it comes to scans, there are a lot of unknowns and what-ifs. Patient anxiety is generally over risks of the procedure itself (such as complications from radiation or dyes), claustrophobia during MRI and the possibility that the test will find cancer or show that treatment is not working. This latter concern, is fear of the unknown, which is a generally protective response. It becomes a problem, however, when it affects behavior in a negative way.

Too much anxiety can lead to overall unease and incidents such as panic attacks, mood swings, trouble eating, fast breathing, elevated heart rate and feeling like you are not yourself. It can be very difficult to overcome such unsettled feelings. The only way to slow the brain down is by controlling the body, or the decelerator. Fortunately, there are effective mind-body techniques that can first quiet the body and then quiet the mind when scanxiety takes hold.

Mind-body techniques teach people with scanxiety the following steps:

  • Calm the body. Try deep breathing (such as in yoga): inhale slowly through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Or try progressive muscle relaxation: Hold muscles (tense) for about 10 seconds, then release.
  • Practice mindfulness. Try meditating or doing yoga. You could even try downloading some meditation podcasts if you have trouble meditating on your own. Activities like meditation and guided imagery help manage anxiety about scans and make sure you are not missing these valuable tests.
  • Take your mind off your scanxiety by doing something you love. Listen to music, watch a TV serial or whatever else makes you happy.
  • Exercise – it helps just about everything. You don’t have to go all out or run a marathon, just get your body moving. For example, take a walk around the neighborhood. No vigorous exercise the day before the scan though.
  • Distract yourself and stay busy. Staying busy leading up to your scan will keep your mind occupied and keep you from focusing on the upcoming scan or scan results.
  • Help Others – Research shows that when we help others we also help ourselves. You don’t have to organize a large fundraising event, just choose a small act of kindness. Pay it forward, volunteer in your community, spend time with a lonely friend and so on.

In addition to mind-body techniques to ease anxiety, you may also take comfort in knowing that your care team has made your positive experience their priority.

One of our patients writes about her experience: “Almost six years after my cancer diagnosis, I still get scanxiety. I get scans once in a year now. Scanxiety starts rearing its ugly head as I get closer to the scan date. By the day of the scan, I get terribly jittery and restless. I have been so jittery that I have wanted to take a sedative! But of course, that is not advisable at all. So my way of dealing with the anxiety was to carry my headphones and listen to my favourite music while waiting for the scan and to treat myself to some shopping afterwards, so I had something to look forward to! This really helps me on the day of my scan. Still, until I get the final scan results, the symptoms continue. Thankfully, the team of doctors at Onkaulogy Kombine, get back really fast with the results and that puts me out of my misery!”