A woman holding a hand up to block her view of an MRI machine in the background as she focuses on talking to her friend.

Making the Most of Time Between Scans

Last updated: September 2022

All of us living with lung cancer, whether diagnosed at an early stage or later stage, have to deal with periodic scans. Those of us with metastatic disease usually have scans every three months, while others with local disease might have them less frequently. No matter how often scans occur, it is important to stay on schedule in order to have the best possible information about your health.

There’s always a lot of discussion about scanxiety in the lung cancer community and managing your understandable anxiety leading up to these scans. But, there is less discussion about living life in between scans. How can we best handle the period of time between scans?

Managing scanxiety...easier said than done

It’s easy to say that this is the time to enjoy your life and live in the present. However, in practice, it is seldom so simple. For patients already diagnosed with lung cancer, it’s a quick jump to worrying that any new ache or pain, however minor, is due to disease growth or metastasis. Shoulder pain could be from sleeping in a strange position or from a bone metastasis! A headache could be from too much time on the computer or from brain metastases!

Facing those worries and fears

How should a patient handle these worries? I’ll tell you what I do. I ask myself if I would be concerned about an issue if I didn’t know that I had lung cancer. If the answer is no, I attempt to distract myself, wait a few days, and see if the problem just resolves on its own. Usually, the ache or pain that made me anxious disappears in a short time; often I don’t even remember why it concerned me so much in the first place! Of course, any truly unusual or severe pain that continues or recurs should be brought to the attention of your oncologist.

Another situation that frequently makes it more difficult to enjoy time in between scans is the mention of something on the scan that needs to be “watched.” Practicing medicine can often be more of an art than a science, and there isn’t always a clear answer after scans. Your oncologist might say that an area of focus could be an infection, rather than growth, but you might need to wait until the next scan to know for sure. Or a different radiologist than usual could read your scan and emphasize a finding that could be a change or might be insignificant. In such cases, you will need to wait until your next scan for a clear determination of whether or not any follow-up or treatment change is necessary.

What is your scan day mantra?

What should you do if this happens? First of all, I try not to panic. Instead, I tell myself that “worrying will not do anything helpful; it will only end up ruining today.” When I mention that I tell myself this, I mean that I literally repeat this phrase to myself whenever I start to worry, like a mantra, until I start to believe it. I even picture myself taking my scan information and putting it in an envelope not to be opened until right before my next scan! With practice, this really works for me. It’s usually harder to do right after an inconclusive scan, but becomes easier after days pass and results in significantly relieving my anxiety in between scans. Practicing such self-talk allows me to enjoy my daily activities between scans without undue worrying.

Let's talk about self talk

I have discovered that many psychologists prescribe changing your self-talk in order to stay in the present and influence the way you feel about things. “Self-talk can veer toward the negative when we think back to past situations in which things did not go well—and when we ponder a future full of things that could go wrong. Research finds that when self-talk focuses on the present moment instead, and on seeing that moment and its opportunities as valuable, it more effectively helps us reach our goals.”1

To read more about how to make your self-talk work for you, check out this Psychology Today article.1 I hope it will help you make the most of your time in between scans!

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