Scanxiety could be related to the procedure itself, especially one that hasn’t been experienced before, but it definitely applies to waiting for the results. Even years after a diagnosis, people report they still have a sense of fear and foreboding prior to hearing test results, whether it’s by way of a phone call or at their doctor’s office.
Can scanxiety be avoided altogether? Maybe not, but there are several things we can do to reduce the impact. One of my favorite coping techniques is to allocate worry time. Let me share an example. Years ago, my fiancé (now husband) asked if I would co-present with him at an out-of-state mental health conference on complicated grief. I couldn’t believe I said yes, but I had committed to it. Every time I thought about it, I became anxious and shaky. The days flew by and the presentation date was getting closer and closer. I was scared. I was nauseous. What on earth had I been thinking when I committed to this? I was experiencing all kinds of self-doubt about my ability and knowledge. I had a bad case of the “what-ifs.” “What if they think I’m stupid? What if I forget what I’m talking about? What if no one comes to our presentation?” My anxiety was raging, and I was feeling totally overwhelmed.
Then I remembered my favorite coping strategy: allocating worry time. When the familiar unsettling feeling started to bubble up, I told myself “I’m not going to focus on that now. I’ll allow myself some time for anxiety the night before the presentation, but not before.” I lost count of how many times I pulled out that coping strategy. Plus, I added some positive mantras: “I’ve done extensive research on this topic. I know what I’m talking about. I have resources and anecdotal stories to validate my presentation.” And it worked! In addition to being very well-prepared, I saved myself hours of anxiety by using some simple coping techniques that included distraction, thought stopping, allocating worry time, and reframing catastrophic thinking into positive mantras.
While anxiety about an upcoming event may not be the same as anxiety about a scan, the feelings are similar: apprehension, fear, dread, uncertainty. And the what-ifs: “What if it’s cancer? What if there’s a recurrence? What if I need more surgery or treatment? What if I can’t work? What if I can’t pay for this?” The coping strategies are also similar: distraction, thought stopping, allocating worry time, and reframing: “I’ve done hard things before, and I can again if I need to. I’ve got this. Others have gotten through this - I can too.” And being well-prepared is part of the coping strategy: Talking to another survivor in similar circumstances or someone who has been down this road; asking questions of the medical staff beforehand in order to be as prepared as possible.
There are other things that can help with scanxiety: Schedule an early appointment time. Ask when and how you will get results. Plan activities that you enjoy in the days prior to the appointment. Avoid participating in things that require careful thought or planning. Let people know you may not be yourself around this time to foster understanding of your stress level. Focus on the time after the appointment, and plan to give yourself a treat afterward or some activity to look forward to.
I do love a good rocking chair. It gives me something to do, and I find it calming. And that’s its purpose – not to get me somewhere. Anxiety gives me something to do, isn’t calming and gets me nowhere. Generalized anxiety or scanxiety can be immobilizing, but I take comfort in the knowledge that there are a number of things I can do to help myself because not everything is out of my control.
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Sherry Martin is the Patient Services Director for Sue's Gift, a licensed clinical social worker with over thirty years of experience in the field of oncology social work, and author of the book, Beginning Again: Tools for the Journey through Grief: A Step-by-Step Guide for Facilitators of a Grief Support Group. Sherry lives with her husband in Woodland Park, Colorado.
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