aka Scan Anxiety
by Jana Bolduan Lomax, PSyD
Your life after cancer diagnosis and treatment will be marked by moments of hope, resilience, and strength. However, there may also be times when anxiety will cast a shadow over your journey. One of the most common sources of anxiety for cancer survivors is surveillance scans and tests. The fear of the unknown, the memories of the test results that led to your initial cancer diagnosis, and the anticipation of potential bad news can give rise to what is commonly referred to as “scanxiety.”
Scanxiety refers to the heightened anxiety experienced by cancer survivors in the days, weeks, and months leading up to medical scans like MRI, CT, PET, and blood tests. This anxiety can be triggered by a range of factors, including fear of recurrence, apprehensions about treatment effectiveness, trauma responses, and the overall uncertainty of the results. Understanding the root causes of scanxiety is the first step to managing it successfully.
Scanxiety (noun): The heightened anxiety experienced by cancer survivors in the days, weeks, and months leading up to medical scans.
Knowledge is power. An effective way to address scanxiety is to empower yourself with information. Make sure you understand the purpose of the scan you are soon to undergo, the details of the procedure, and what the results might reveal. This can help demystify the process and give you a sense of control. Find out when, how, and from whom your test results can be expected. You should also ask your healthcare team to give you a follow-up care schedule so you can be prepared for future surveillance scans and tests.
Communication is key. It’s vital that you maintain open and honest communication with your healthcare team. Don’t be hesitant to discuss your concerns and fears with them. Your medical providers can give you insight into the significance of your follow-up tests and offer reassurance about what to expect.
Coping with Scanxiety
Coping with scanxiety requires a combination of psychological, social, and practical strategies. Everyone is different, so you need to try out the tactics that resonate the most with you until you find what works. Additionally, these strategies may evolve over time, just as you will. Here are some examples of adaptive coping strategies you can use to help lessen your scanxiety:
Visualize positive outcomes. Instead of exclusively preparing for worst-case scenarios, visualize good outcomes. Imagine receiving good news, or envision yourself successfully navigating any challenges that may arise.
Limit your exposure to scan-related triggers. While being informed is important, you don’t want to overexpose yourself to cancer-related news and stories, especially in the days leading up to the scan. This can help you avoid unnecessary anxiety triggers. Be mindful of the time you spend on social media and search engines. Sure, these can be good tools; however, they are often unhelpful during times of uncertainty, anxiety, or sadness.
Journal. Write down your thoughts and feelings leading up to the scan. Putting your emotions into words can help you process them and can give you perspective on the intensity of your anxiety. It can also be a way to sort out the questions and concerns you want to bring up with your treatment team.
Instead of exclusively preparing for worst-case scenarios, visualize good outcomes.
Practice mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness techniques can be powerful tools for managing scanxiety. These practices encourage you to stay present, focus on your breath, and shift your attention away from your anxious thoughts. You can even find apps and online resources that offer guided sessions tailored to reducing stress and anxiety.
Distract and relax. Take part in activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Try walking outdoors, reading an enjoyable book, listening to music, getting involved in hobbies, or spending time with loved ones. These activities can help shift your focus away from anxiety-inducing thoughts. If you have a scan coming up, schedule an activity that you can look forward to on the same day or week as your scan.
Lean on your support network. Talk to friends, family, and other members of your support community about your feelings and fears. Sharing your emotions can give you a sense of relief and remind you that you’re not alone. Let them know how best to support you. If you are looking advice, tell them. If you prefer to be heard and acknowledged without anyone offering “fix it” strategies, say so.
Cultivate self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion means treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a friend. Be gentle with yourself. You have already shown immense courage by facing your diagnosis head-on. Believe that you can continue moving forward in healing. Be aware of when you’re becoming self-critical and try to offer yourself compassion during those moments.
Simply taking a few minutes each day to reflect on positive aspects of your life can shift your focus from anxiety to resilience.
Reconnect with your body. Once active cancer treatment ends, some survivors feel disconnected from their bodies. This detachment is a natural response to the invasive tests and treatments that come with facing cancer. You can help rebuild the connection between your mind and your body by engaging in activities that foster body awareness and empowerment and that focus on healing. Activities like yoga, tai chi, and meditation are a good place to start. These practices can also help reduce stress, which aids in overall healing.
Set realistic expectations. It’s important that you set realistic expectations for your ongoing healing. This is the case whether your treatment has concluded or you’re continuing with ongoing maintenance therapies. Celebrate any and all victories and milestones. Be patient with yourself if progress is slow. Remember, healing is not a linear process.
Practice gratitude. Finding moments of gratitude amidst the challenges can be a transformative practice. Simply taking a few minutes each day to reflect on positive aspects of your life can shift your focus from anxiety to resilience.
A Final Word
Scanxiety is a natural response to living through the trauma of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, but it doesn’t have to dominate your post-treatment experience. By preparing yourself with knowledge, communicating with your healthcare team, and adopting healthy coping strategies, you can navigate this chapter of your cancer story with greater resilience and continued healing. Remember, each test result is just one page of your ongoing story of strength and survival.
Dr. Jana Bolduan Lomax is a licensed clinical psychologist in Colorado. She specializes in Health Psychology, psychosocial oncology and focuses on working with adults facing chronic or life-limiting illnesses, their loved ones, and their healthcare providers. Following her career in academic and community cancer centers, Dr. Lomax launched Shift Healing | Health Psychology, a private group practice designed to provide high quality, collaborative psychotherapy and healthcare consultation for adult individuals, couples, and families adjusting to medical conditions and bereavement. She is a board member for the Colorado Psychological Association, a member of the Colorado Cancer Coalition and the American Psychosocial Oncology Society, and a mental health advisor for Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC!).