Dealing With Cancer ‘Scanxiety’

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on November 09, 2022
4 min read

Whether it’s used in a diagnosis or to see if your tumor has shrunk with treatment or come back after you’ve ended it, scans are a fact of life when cancer is in the picture. For most people, so is “scanxiety,” a term people in the cancer community use to describe the nervousness around the time of these tests.

There are good reasons you may be nervous about a cancer scan. The results help you know what’s going on with your condition, so there’s uncertainty there. You might feel tense, angry, or upset. You may also feel tired knowing that when this scan is done, you’ll soon need another. Your family and friends may be concerned, too, and knowing that can heighten your feelings.

Scans for cancer can also be physically uncomfortable. Sometimes you need to deal with loud noises while you’re in the scanning machine. Or you may dread the thought of another needle stick or of needing to drink a lot of liquid to prep for the scan.

Anxiety, including that related to cancer scans, is part of how your body responds to threats. It releases adrenaline and other hormones that prepare you for “fight or flight.” This can make you nauseated or trouble your sleep in the days before the procedure or while you wait for the results.

You may be sweaty, shaky, or feel your heart rate skyrocket. You might clench your hands or jaw, or hold tension that makes your muscles ache.

The need for a scan may also bring back bad memories of your cancer diagnosis. In some cases, it might mimic PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder. This can show up as “intrusive” thoughts, which creep in and are hard to dismiss. You may also be cranky, have nightmares, or have flashbacks to stressful events.

It’s not about trying to get rid of an emotion, but working with it. Try these ways to ease the tension.

Learn how you react. Everybody’s different. You might get an upset stomach before your scan, while someone else gets angry with a loved one over nothing. When you know how you respond, you can spot your signs of distress and take steps to relieve them.

Set time limits on conscious worries. Don’t let anxiety take over your thoughts nonstop. Choose 10 minutes once or twice a day to focus on your fears. When those thoughts arise at other times, gently remind yourself to think about it at your scheduled time. If you need to, write down your fears so you can think them over then.

Try to stay in the present moment. Scanxiety is about what’s going to happen in the future and what it might mean. So keep your mind on the here and now. Focus on what you’re doing in the present, whether that’s cooking a meal, talking with a friend, or walking your dog.

Use relaxation techniques. Simple deep breathing exercises can calm down your heart rate and ease anxiety. There are many ways to do this. With meditation, you focus on your breath or a word to bring your thoughts into the present. Visualization helps you imagine a calming place. Exercise is a proven stress reliever. Apps can help you learn easy deep breathing and meditation techniques. Some cancer centers offer workshops on relaxation exercises.

Schedule an early scan appointment time. This may cut down on your wait and give you less time to feel anxious.

Get support from people who comfort you. Some people can raise your anxiety, while others reassure you and help you stay calm. Spend time with those who ease your stress. Ask them to come to your appointment with you, for good company or as a quiet comfort.

Distract yourself. Find ways to take your mind off your anxiety. Stream movies or music, listen to a binge-worthy podcast, read the latest bestseller, or start a new project.

Make your scan as comfortable as possible. Talk to your technician about what will happen so you know what to expect. Ask for a blanket, eye cover, or to use headphones to listen to music. This may make a loud, confined scan less stressful. If your scan involves a needle stick or anything else painful, ask your doctor for numbing or other anti-pain medications.

Talk with your doctor to decide when and how you’ll get your results. Ask your doctor to keep your wait for results as short as possible. Also discuss how you’d like to get them: in a phone call, email, or in-person visit. If you will discuss results in person, schedule the appointment for as soon as possible after the scan.