'Scans are like revolving doors, emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side'
– Bruce Feiler (2011)
Most of us are familiar with the medical implications of a scan. This is whether you’re the person having the scan, or supporting someone else going through the tests.
Many of you will identify with the nervous tension, anxiety and trepidation about having a scan. Scans, be they MRI, CT, PET scan or ultrasound – generally have more significance for someone with a possible or definite cancer diagnosis.
The emotional stress about scans and scan results even has its own term - ‘scanxiety’.
‘Scanxiety’ is defined as a ‘cancer patient’s fear and worry associated with imaging, both before and after a test (before the results are revealed)’
It’s generally focused around:-
• Waiting for the scan date.
• Anxieties about the scan itself.
• Worries about the results and what they might mean.
The key word is often the waiting…waiting for the scan appointment to arrive, waiting to be called into the scan, and waiting for the results.
Why do we get so worked up about a scan?
Some of the worry is about what the results will reveal, and the uncertainty around what may follow.
It’s the feeling of not being in control of our destiny, and for some, a reminder of our potential mortality.
People who generally may be coping with their cancer day to day, or may have completed treatment months or years ago – often find that their old anxieties and fears return.
Ironically, once the results are known, these feelings frequently subside to a manageable level – although if the cancer is new, or there’s been a significant change, anxiety levels may continue till there’s a treatment plan.
For some people, whether it's you, or someone you care about being scanned - the scan results may be a factor in what happens next. And the dread may be...the 'what if's'....what if the treatment isn't working...what if things are worse....?
In an article I read recently, ‘Coping with Scanxiety’ – (Gateway for Cancer Research, 19 Jul 2016), the author noted that many cancer patients suffer anxiety and dread prior to their scan appointment date, with some people reporting difficulties concentrating, sleeping and carrying out normal daily activities.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is said to affect over 20% of people with cancer, and these feelings escalate around times of scans, tests and appointments.
How can these feelings be managed?
- Acknowledge that feeling anxious before an appointment is normal. Take and keep control of the situation as best you can. When the subject of a scan is mentioned, at any point of your cancer experience – clarify when this is likely to happen, and at what point should you chase it up. If you’re waiting for a scan appointment to be confirmed, and you haven’t heard anything – don’t hesitate to check with the hospital or your GP.
- This sounds logical, but as soon as you know when it is, clear your diary, pencil it in on your calendar, and double check any instructions which accompany the scan appointment. If the scan is in the afternoon, and you know you’ll be anxious – perhaps arrange to have the day off from work. Sometimes it’s tempting to cancel or defer the scan, as you’re worried about the results – but the sooner the test is carried out, the sooner you’ll have the results and be able to have a plan to move forward.
- Some people are more fearful of the scan process itself. It may be that you’re worried you’ll be claustrophobic in a scanner, or anxious about what the scan might entail. Do let your doctor/ support specialist/radiology department know – as they’ll work with you to demystify the process and talk you through.
- Think of ways to get you through the appointment itself. Take magazines, crosswords, anything to be focusing on in the waiting room. If the anxiety levels start creeping up, ‘ground’ yourself. Look around the waiting room, listen to conversations, if you’re up to it, talk with others…they’re likely to be as nervous as you. A bit of people watching can be a great distraction.
- If you’re anxious, take someone with you – both for the scan appointment, and any results discussions. Having someone listening out for you, and being a support, can ease the tension.
- Check when the results will be available, and how they will be communicated to you. Prepare mentally for the chance that the results may not be ready on the day originally anticipated – this does sometimes happen, and can crank up the stress and anxiety levels accordingly.
- Plan something for afterwards – a treat, even if it’s something as simple as a cup of coffee to unwind.
- In the days/weeks waiting for the results, distract yourself as best you can. The test has been done, and thinking too much about the result doesn’t change the outcome. The right things are being done, and you’re in the system. If you’ve learnt any relaxation/coping strategies, try them out…yoga, relaxation, breathing exercises. If the anxiety is building up and starts to feel overwhelming, talk to someone about it – friends, family, your GP or your nearest Maggie’s.
Many of the people we support talk to us about the worry around tests and scans, and I’m sure you may have other suggestions to get through the scan tensions – we’d love to hear them.
Original blog written by Sue Long, Cancer Support Specialist, in April, 2017
(Updated April 2020)
What can I do about scanxiety? - Breast Cancer Now
Coping with scanxiety - Gateway for Cancer Research
Scanxiety - (Bruce Feiler, Thurs Jun 2, 2011) - Time Magazine