A brain tumour patient waiting for her turn outside an MRI room is anxious, has palpitations and is sweating. She has a suspected tumour which needs to be confirmed. However, she refuses the test. Could it be that terrifying?
Scanxiety is worry and uneasiness experienced by the patient before undergoing a scan or receiving its results.
Scans have become common in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Starting from the first diagnosis, we need to get scanning done at many stages, whether to know if the tumour has shrunk or disappeared or if it has recurred.
Many patients experience different levels of scanxiety that can impact their quality of life. In fact, anxiety or stress can begin even weeks before a scan. Patients may have trouble eating and sleeping or they seem to be preoccupied with intrusive thoughts. Increased heart rate, irritability, sweaty palms and nausea are the common symptoms seen in patients before the scan.
One predominant reason for this fear being so common in cancer patients is that many of them have already experienced negative results from the scans. Such lingering memories fuel feelings of insecurity and intensify the fear and anxiety about the next scan and its results.
Following are some of the strategies to cope with the emotional trauma associated with scans. Try them and find the one that works for you.
Stop reliving the past
Thinking about an upcoming scan can bring to mind difficult or painful memories from past sessions, which could weigh upon your current state of mind. Trying to predict the next scan results, or thinking about losing current treatment options will only make it worse. It is better to avoid such thoughts, and keep your mind engaged with the things you like. Have a conversation with a loved one, or read a book, or take a walk while you are waiting for the scan or the scan results.
Everyone responds and adapts to stress differently. Some may turn irritable or withdraw from family and friends, while others may experience insomnia or loss of appetite. Hence, instead of fighting back with your reactions, acknowledging and accepting the situation can change your experience. It is also better to analyse yourself and identify the triggers or trends related to the onset of the symptoms. This helps to develop an effective coping mechanism that best suits you and addresses your scanxiety symptoms in a better way.
Plan in advance
Many of the scans are pre-scheduled that occur at specific intervals throughout the year. This allows you to plan ahead and prepare your mind in advance. It also helps to identify which parts of the process make you more anxious and develop strategies to combat it well. For instance, shifting an appointment to the morning slot may help if you usually build-up a lot of anxiety while waiting for an afternoon slot. There is nothing wrong with asking a friend to join you to prevent you from overthinking while waiting for your turn. Consulting a counsellor can help you manage scanxiety between the scans and follow-up appointments. Being aware of your appointments in advance also helps to mitigate your worry to some extent about the results.
Discuss with your doctor
Your treating oncologist could be the best person to help you, as they are more aware of your current condition, and also have experience working with other patients who face the same situation. Meeting your oncologist and sharing your feelings with them may help you express yourself and receive proper advice from them with regards to coping techniques. They can also connect you with a team of professionals or counsellors, who can help you better manage your emotions.
Resort to distractions
As discussed earlier, scanxiety related stress may induce body responses like increased heart rate or heavy breathing. Distracting yourself from the stress helps to avoid such symptoms. Engage in activities that demand your complete focus, such as knitting, painting, listening to music and meditation or anything else that interests you. This can have a great impact on your stress by taking away your focus from the upcoming scan. Scheduling a time to meditate, practising gentle yoga or taking short walks and other healthy activities help you navigate through tough emotions.
People who are already stressed and feeling very anxious may find it hard to do all of the above by themselves. Such people may seek out counsellors for meditation therapy.
Speak out and share
It is good to express your feelings instead of bottling them up. Social connections help to relieve stress and anxiety. Identify a trusted friend you can rely on during your weakest moments. Calling a friend who will listen to you could provide you with immense relief. Talking to your family and friends may help you de-stress.
Join a support group
Support groups are a blend of emotional, social, and educational support that are designed to share your feelings and experience, which makes you feel better and hopeful. Joining a support group and talking to people who are facing similar issues could be of great help.
If required consult a psychiatrist or therapist, to help the patient deal with their emotional and mental problems.
Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation may worsen your stress and anxiety. It may also suppress the immune system and affect your threshold for anxiety or worry. Ample sleep every night can rejuvenate the body’s cells and tissues.
It is good to get at least eight to nine hours of sleep each night, especially when your scan is only a few days away. Making a bedtime routine may help in forming a better sleep pattern. Having a warm bath, reading books, and meditating are some ways that reduce stress and ensure good sleep.
Practice meditation or yoga
For people prone to anxiety, it is important to learn and practice any routine that provides peace to them. Research also says that yoga and meditation help to create mindfulness and provide stability to withstand critical situations.
Scanxiety is for real, not a mere emotional situation. It needs to be addressed and managed properly to prevent its undesirable effects on health. As a cancer patient, you need to understand that you cannot avoid it completely. Hence, learning to cope up with scanxiety and finding ways to manage it well may help improve your quality of life.