Scanxiety meaning is literally “scan anxiety.” You’re feeling anxiety about upcoming cancer scans. 

CT scans, blood tests, and other diagnostic and follow-up tests are a part of the colorectal cancer continuum. But they can cause so much worry, stress, and anxiety. So, what do you do? Because you can’t skip your scans. 

What are some ways to deal with scanxiety?

Scanxiety Definition

The scanxiety definition originates from a Time Magazine article of the same name. "Scanxiety," by Bruce Feiler appeared in the June 2, 2011, issue of Time Magazine." Feiler defined scanxiety as,

“the anxiety and/or distress associated with an imaging test in postcancer follow-up, both ahead of the actual examination and up to the announcement of the test results.”

–Bruce Feiler, "Scanxiety – Health Special: Cancer." Time Magazine. June 2, 2011.

Cancer Scanxiety Is a Real Thing

Can you believe that the National Cancer Institute doesn’t have a definition for scanxiety in its online dictionary? If it doesn’t exist there, does that mean scanxiety isn’t a real thing? No way! 

We know that anxiety and waiting for scan results is absolutely nerve-racking. Can you avoid scanxiety? Coping with scanxiety is easier said than done.

Keep in mind that having these scans and tests are a good thing! In your head and heart, you already know this. But your brain keeps tapping on that scanxiety nerve. And you feel every tap as a beat in your heart. It preys on your mental health

One of your biggest fears may be dealing with a recurrence. These scans, tests, and follow-ups all have a specific purpose: to check in on you to ensure you’re doing well or maintaining your current condition. 

But the dark clouds you can’t push from your mind contain the words, “What happens if cancer comes back?”

Waiting for Scan or Test Results Is the Hardest Part

Without a doubt, the hardest part of scanxiety is the entire process of scans or tests through results. Your scanxiety doesn’t end when your scan is over. Then you need to check in with your doctor. 

Waiting for tests and scans and their results is excruciating. 

Below are five ways to deal with scanxiety. While we know they won’t reduce your scanxiety completely, we hope they provide some level of peace and calm before your scans and tests.

5 Tips to Help Reduce Scanxiety

Sometimes having a plan in place is enough to help put your mind at ease. We hope these are helpful ways to deal with scanxiety:

1. Plan ahead.

Talk to your doctor before the tests and scans take place. Be sure to ask:

  • What is the scan or test?
  • What may the scan results mean?
  • When will you hear back with the scan or test results?
  • Should you call the doctor to get test results, or will they call you?
  • How long it will take to get your results and why

Bring along a trusted friend or loved one who can take notes and also serve as a second set of ears.

2. Keep Your Schedule.

Sticking to your routine can distract and prevent you from pacing around the house, dwelling on the scan results.

3. Get Moving.

Get some fresh air. Go outside. Get some activity. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least 150 minutes each week, and muscle-strengthening activity at least two times per week. Not only can exercise take your mind off the potential test or scan results (hello, distraction!) but it’s also really good for you.

4. Do Something New.

This may be a great time to try something new where you are able to be mindful and stay in the moment. Are you interested in a paint and sip class? How about giving one of the new recipes from Cook for Your Life a shot? Maybe think about learning a few phrases in a new language? Or you could try yoga or meditation? Doing something new is a great way to focus on the present, which may keep your mind off the upcoming scans for a bit.

5. Lean on Your Friends.

Talk to someone you know and trust. Someone who won’t minimize your feelings and your fears, and someone who won’t offer unsolicited advice. Talking about what you’re going through and even your fears of your approaching tests or scans can help a lot. While friends and loved ones can be great for this, so can your counselor or therapist.

couple calling doctor scanxiety
Don’t hesitate to call your doctor if you have questions about your scan or test results.

How to Deal With Scanxiety?

We’ve asked our experts – survivors in the colorectal cancer community – for their tips on coping with scanxiety. Here’s what they had to say:

“Scanxiety is very real for me. MRIs include a heavy dose of Valium. I have scans every three months. My scanxiety flares up every time I see the appointment on my calendar.

My sleeplessness starts the week before the scan. MRI and PET scans are the worst for me because I am claustrophobic. I take two Valium before the scan, and I have a driver! I also keep my eyes closed the entire time in the tube.

For the MRI, I prep by playing MRI sounds on YouTube and lay under my covers with a weighted pad on my pelvis to try and simulate the experience.

I then try to not look at the report until I meet with my oncologist. However, this is usually a big fail on my part since I sometimes do not meet with my oncologist for a couple of days. The report is usually available within an hour.”

–Meredith Huetter, stage III rectal cancer survivor

“Being 10 years out has not made my scananxiety any less agonizing. I'm scanned every six months, and I still get weak in my stomach.

My white blood count never returned to normal after chemo. So, I'm always wondering ‘What if?’”

–Pam Allen, stage III colon cancer survivor

“I’m 2.5 years with no evidence of disease (NED). I am getting scans and labs every six months. I’ve told my oncologist that I have anxiety about recurrence, and I asked him for Ativan.

However, my anxiety starts up about a week before scans. It’s worse the few nights before the scans. It’s hard to sleep, and I can’t turn my brain off.

Therapy is good and helps because we are able to talk about ‘What if the cancer comes back?’ And how it would be handled. Exercise has kept me sane through cancer and COVID.”

–Lara Lambert, stage III rectal cancer survivor

“I just try really hard to stay in the present moment with work and kids. I saw a yoga therapist for a few months, not necessarily for anxiety but for overall wellness. She helped me learn to meditate and breathe. We'd talk about all the things happening in life. She helped me learn to focus when things were scattered.

But there are other times when I feel anxious and instead of focusing I just get lost in a TV show I've watched 1,000 times, to detach from real life and put my head in the sand.

So, I get CT scans every six months, and my last one was in August. When I left the imaging center and got into my car, I learned a friend, who had colon cancer, had passed three days prior. So, in addition to the anxiety of waiting for results, I was so sad, and just felt incredibly guilty for being happy when I got the ‘you are still NED’ call.

I get anxious several days before my scans. The night before is the worst. I usually don’t sleep.”

–Leticia Alvarenga, stage III rectal cancer survivor

“Between scans, I try to continue to stay positive and do what I can mentally and physically to try and stay healthy.

However, I tell myself at the time of the scan that there is nothing I can do at that moment to change the results. I prepare myself that I will do whatever I need to do if the scan results are not good.

I would be lying if I told you this is easy, because once you go through hell, you never want to go through it again.

But, unfortunately most cancer survivors have no choice but to have these scans. The choice you do have is how to mentally deal with it.”

–Michael Stern, stage IV colon cancer survivor

Need to Talk to Someone While Awaiting Your Test or Scan Results?

Fight CRC’s toll-free resource line gives you an option to speak directly with a counselor from Cancer Support Community (CSC) for live assistance. If you are looking to find resources, short-term cancer counseling and emotional support, or help with financial counseling regarding the costs of cancer and its treatments, call today: 1-877-427-2111. The helpline is open from 9am to 9pm Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. This resource line is available in English and Spanish, with translation services for 200 additional languages.

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