Last updated: June 2021
CT Scan: A series of X-rays that take detailed pictures inside your body.
Anxiety: A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
Scanxiety: A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about an imminent CT scan.
Many emotions accompany a scan
Anyone who ever received a lung cancer diagnosis understands the barrage of feelings that come when it is time to undergo periodic imaging to monitor cancer activity in our body. A wide variety of emotions—such as anticipation, anxiety, dread, excitement, fear, etc.—arrive with great intensity when the time comes for our CT or PET scan. Whether you were recently diagnosed or are a longtime survivor, there’s something about getting a scan that creates a range of feelings from intense curiosity to deep-seated fear.
With a new lung cancer diagnosis, there is a flurry of imaging and other activity. CT scan, PET scan, biopsy, pulmonary function test, etc. After initial treatment, routine CT scans may be taken quarterly, then every six months. The time between scans increases as a patient stabilizes or completes treatment. Before long, if treatment was successful, scans may be scheduled every six months, then annually.
Scanxiety remains...even for long-term survivors
Long-term survivors, like myself, get an annual CT scan. Like clockwork, I experience scanxiety when the time for my annual scan draws nears, even though it has been more than a decade since my diagnosis. Those of us who have undergone numerous scans call the anxiety associated with these scans “scanxiety.” That term may not be in the dictionary but as soon as a lung cancer patient hears it, they immediately understand its meaning. For some, the scanxiety sets in weeks prior to the actual CT scan. For others, like myself, it begins the moment the CT machine begins to give the familiar command, “Hold your breath.” It seems as though I continue holding my breath until the doctor shares the report with me.
Even when a patient expects good news, there may be scanxiety. I have known lung cancer patients who experienced such dramatic improvements in their breathing function that they knew—without a doubt—that their clinical trial was working for them. They were eager to get their scans and extremely anxious for the scan to prove what their bodies already knew.
On the flip side, some patients know that their cancer has spread or grown because of the symptoms they are experiencing. They may have mixed emotions about receiving confirmation of their suspicions. Many others, however, have no hint about what is happening until their doctor notifies them about their scan results.
When I reached my 10 year cancerversary, my oncologist suggested I might want to stop receiving annual CT scans.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “I’d peek inside every day if I could.”
Of course, as my doctor explained, these scans expose my lungs to small amounts of radiation, which could increase my cancer risk. Nevertheless, to my relief, I continue to receive annual CT scans.
Tips to manage scanxiety
In the early days after my diagnosis, my CT scan was scheduled, and then I would have to wait several days before my visit with my oncologist. That resulted in runaway scanxiety. My imagination went wild…believing the worst. That kind of sustained anxiety is not good for anyone. Fortunately, many oncologists have become more sensitive to patients’ stress level surrounding their scans. Here is a suggestion that can help you cope with scanxiety, and possibly even eliminate it: ask your doctor to schedule your visit immediately following your CT scan, preferably the same day. Also, share your scan day with others in the lung cancer community, like here on the LungCancer.net forums. Sometimes giving it a name and talking about it with others who face the same challenges can help tremendously.
Most of all, remember to take care of yourself if you are experiencing scanxiety. Go for a walk, eat well, and get a good night’s sleep. Doing these things will help you be best prepared for when you meet with your doctor, so you can be alert and ready to face whatever the day brings.
Below are some links for additional resources:
- Tips for Coping with Scanxiety - from Cure
- Coping with Scanxiety - from Stupid Cancer
- Cancer 'Scanxiety' Is a Real (Terrifying) Thing- from Medscape (requires log-in, however membership is free of charge)
- Scanxiety: 8 Tips To Cope With Scan Anxiety - from The Huffington Post
- Scanxiety and Terror Management Theory - from ASCO Connection
What healthy habits do you use to improve the quality of your life?