Scan and Test Anxiety: A Guide for the Newcomer

You were treated for localized cancer just last year. Your routine follow-up is next week. You’re consumed with dread over the possibility you’ve relapsed. You can’t concentrate, you can’t sleep, and even your appetite is off. You wonder if it will ever get better. Does that sound like you? If so, read on! (And if not, congratulations!)

First you are not alone. Scan anxiety is a very common problem (and it’s been a problem for me). In my experience, including both my personal experience, and listening to other people facing this, it really does get better over time. I haven’t found any quick fix for scan anxiety, but I hope the following thoughts will help the process along.

  • Expect it to Get Easier: Each time you get the all clear, that’s positive reinforcement that you’re OK. If you’re like me, you’re positively euphoric! Over time you will automatically learn to anticipate the good news which will make it easier.
  • The Chance of a Recurrence on any One Scan is Relatively Low: If you have some chance of a recurrence over the next few years, even if it does happen sometime in that period, the chance it is detected on any one scan is divided up among all the scans during these years. That means the chance you’re going to be OK this time is high to very high – even if the risk of recurrence is significant.
  • The Risk of Recurrence Goes Down Over Time: For most people the risk of recurrence actually declines over time. The longer you have gone without a recurrence the less likely you are to ever have one. Some people, especially those who’ve been told they face a high risk of recurrence figure that if they haven’t had one yet, they are more and more likely to. In fact, exactly the opposite is true in almost all cases! As time goes one they are more and more likely to be one of the ones who don’t relapse.
  • Some People are Helped by Relaxation or Visualization: This doesn’t work for me, but does work for some, and it might work for you. If you want to give it a try, have a look at tapes and books from Bernie Siegel or O. Carl Simonton (Note that I haven’t heard tapes from these sources for many years). You might also find it helpful to immerse yourself in an absorbing task around scan time – either at home or on the job.
  • Be Prepared for Radiology Nits: Sometimes the radiologist who reads your scan will pick up something which either needs further investigation, or further follow-up. They may also report things which they think are almost certainly not cancer. A radiologist’s job includes picking up the remote possibilities as well as anything obvious. Preferring to err on the side of caution, they report everything they see. You can almost expect this to happen at least once over the years, so it’s good to be prepared. Very often it’s something they don’t think is likely to actually be a recurrence. If something shows up on your scan you can get an idea of how likely it is to be serious when you talk to the doctor. Often your doctor will order additional tests or a shorter time till the next scan. This still doesn’t necessarily mean it’s likely to be a recurrence! If you read the scan report yourself you might find things your doctor hadn’t mentioned or things they will discuss. My advice: If possible, don’t look at the report before your doctor’s appointment even if you can. Instead go over it with your doctor at your appointment and get your copy afterwards.

Finally, if your anxiety is severe all the time, not just around scan time, or if it’s truly incapacitating, you should definitely talk to your doctor about getting professional help!

This CancerGuide Page By Steve Dunn. © Steve Dunn
Page Created: July 3, 2002, Last Updated: August 14, 2002