There’s a name for it — scanxiety — the normal worry or even fear that accompanies the waiting period before, during and after a medical test or follow-up screening. Even routine testing can activate the body’s fight or flight stress response.
I get it. When my mammogram and ultrasound were canceled due to COVID-19, I was a little relieved. As a breast cancer survivor, those screenings now cause more anxiety. When things opened up, I rescheduled. But then I received a call for a second ultrasound. Visions of facing chemo again flooded my mind. Still, this experience confirmed to me that we should never avoid exams out of such fear. When we get our health care team the info they need to take good care of us, we make possible better medical outcomes.
This isn’t the time to catastrophize about what could be nothing to worry about. Here’s what happened to a friend I’ll call Joan. Due to breast density, a condition that makes it more difficult to spot tumors, her doctor became more thorough with screenings. First an ultrasound was added to the routine mammogram. One year, she had a 3D mammogram. “Each added step brings more anxiety,” she admits. “Last month, I had to go back for an MRI.” Everything ended up being fine, she says, “They are just watching things.”
When we get our health care team the info they need to take good care of us, we make possible better medical outcomes.
As Joan’s doctor reminds her, routine tests aren’t just ordered to diagnose a condition; they are used to screen out that condition and confirm normal functioning. A referral to a diagnostic center doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ill. According to WebMD, for example, fewer than 1 in 10 women called back after a routine mammogram for additional views or other tests, turn out to have breast cancer.
Tips To Help You Cope With Scanxiety
1. Before the appointment: Get the facts, lose the fear
Shifting from alarm to awareness has benefits.
You’ll be assured you’re in good hands. Get recommendations for doctors, specialists and medical facilities. Compassion and professionalism make all the difference.
You’ll feel more in control. Knowing more about the procedure, when you’ll get the results, as well as stating how you’d like to receive the results (by phone, email or in person) can help calm uncertainty.
You’ll feel supported. “Get your support team together [even for a routine screen],” says Victorianne Russell Walton, founder of the health advocacy organization It’s in the Genes, LLC, and a breast cancer survivor. If it’s time for that baseline colonoscopy, ask friends who’ve had one what made prepping for it easier. Consider booking your mammogram at the same time as a friend’s, then having lunch together afterwards.
You’ll close the window on uncertainty. Scheduling an appointment without delay gets you past that “what if” phase faster. To avoid COVID-related anxiety, find out what is being done to keep patients safe during a visit.
2. At the doctor’s: Boost teamwork to limit guesswork
View professionals caring for you as part of your team, and don’t hesitate to ask questions or make requests for your comfort.
You’ll get reliable information. Turn to your doctor for information. Avoid the tendency to self-diagnose online by researching conditions that might not apply to you.
You’ll know someone has your back. Consider bringing a friend or family member. “I did not remember anything after the word ‘cancer,’” Walton recalls. “My sisters were on the phone with us and they assisted with the conversation and talking notes.”
3. While waiting on results: Protect your peace
You’ll rest easier. Write down your worries. Then let them go.
You’ll stay positive. Think about positive ways to address each worry. Remember the times you have come through challenges.
You’ll keep stress hormones at bay. “The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body's processes,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Exercise and a nutritious diet helps reduce stress.
You’ll stay upbeat. Make time for activities you enjoy. Sing along to uplifting music.
You’ll maintain calm. Try meditation, tai chi, yoga, qigong or practice deep breathing.
4. Now that you know: Breathe.
You’ll have answers. Give yourself credit for that. If the test is negative, breathe a sigh of relief. If further steps are indicated, breathe deep and take them one at a time. Focus on the now to avoid catastrophizing.
You’ll keep the faith. Often, a good first step is to share the results with trusted loved ones and prayer warriors. Let family know what you need and how to help, says Walton. “Everyone needs someone to talk to.”