Coping With Scanxiety During Cancer Treatment

Scanxiety is the term that's been coined to describe the anxiety people with cancer feel while waiting for scans. Whether scans are being done for diagnosis, to monitor treatment, to check for a recurrence, or simply for follow-up, it doesn't matter. It's scary to wait.

MRI machine in a dimly lit room
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Why Scans Cause Such Anxiety

The reason that imaging tests cause so much anxiety for people who've experienced cancer is pretty obvious. Even for those who are wondering if they have or don't have cancer, the fear of cancer runs deep. There are few medical conditions that drive such fear in our hearts.

Why? We know that anybody can get cancer — even if you've "done everything right" your whole life. We also know that cancer can hit at any age or at any time. In other words, none of us are safe. And those who have already had cancer know all too well. Cancer isn't like other areas of our lives where we can make it go away if we try harder, or love more, or do more. It's the great leveler of human beings in many ways. There aren't many things in life that leave us feeling so vulnerable.

How to Cope

We know there is anxiety with having scans, and that it's the rule rather than the exception. Research even tells us that it doesn't really matter what we think the results of our scans will be. There could be a 99 percent chance that it will be good or a 99 percent chance that it will be bad news. Even if our chances lie on the good side, our brains (and whatever goes on to release stress hormones in our bodies) don't seem to register those numbers.

So how can you best cope? 

Surround Yourself With People Who “Get It”

If you talk to someone who hasn't had cancer, they may have some great suggestions. "Just don't think about it." "Thinking about it won't change anything." Hmm. A friend of mine recently commented that she was an expert on parenting — until she had kids. The analogy here is very fitting as well. It seems that people have wonderful suggestions for coping with scanxiety — that is until they have to cope with anxiety about their own scans.

Surround yourself with people who get it, either because they've been there themselves, or because they are one of those souls who are simply natural empaths. We know there is nothing you can do while you wait. We know it won't change the outcome of the scan to worry about it. Yet it sure helps to share those worries with someone so you don't have to carry it around alone. Those who have lived through scanxiety realize that "exposing the elephant in the room" doesn't make it come to be. It's there already, and sometimes simply acknowledging its presence may help it disappear a bit.

Surround Yourself With Positive People

You've probably noticed how your whole outlook can change depending on the people you hang out with. Think about the people in your life who always seem to be able to find the silver linings. Positive people who will simply accept with a smile that you're anxious and don't try to fix it. 

On the same note, this is a good time to stay away from those people in your life who are negative or pessimistic. You may have family members or friends like this and feel that spending time with them is important. That's fine — after your scan.

Let Your Healthcare Provider Know Your Worries

You might think, “duh, of course, my healthcare provider knows I’m worried." From having spent time on both sides of a white coat, however, your healthcare provider could perhaps use a gentle reminder. The “squeaky wheel” concept works in medicine as well as anywhere else. Simply make a comment that you are concerned might encourage your healthcare provider to shuffle her schedule a bit to get your results to you sooner.

Have a Plan in Place for Getting Your Results

Even before your scan, have a plan in place for getting your results. Will your healthcare provider be calling you on the phone? Make sure she has the right phone number, and permission to leave a message (or will be available for a callback). Having a clinic call a home number instead of a cell phone number — even when you are still at the hospital after your scan — happens far too frequently. If she will be calling you, ask when.

If your healthcare provider will be giving you your results in person, make sure to have that appointment scheduled before you finish your scan. You may even want to have a plan in place in case of an emergency — for example, if there happens to be a blizzard or anything else.

In some cases, as with biopsy results, your healthcare provider may get a preliminary result before the final reading. Talk to her about this, as well as whether you'd like her to call you even if all of your results aren't yet completed.

Schedule Your Scan in the Morning

Sometimes it can make a difference to schedule your scans in the morning. Ask about this when you schedule your scan.

Ask Yourself, “What’s the Worst Thing That Could Happen?”

You might hesitate to ask yourself about the worst thing that could happen as you wait for scan results. Won't that make you more anxious? Certainly thinking about the worst is not where you want to spend your time, but some people have found that asking themselves this question can be calming. When we think of a bad result our brains often jump to death. While a bad result could mean that a cancer is progressing, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be immediately fatal. Take a minute to think about the bad result you are fearing, and consider what your plan B might be.

Think About the Times You Had Good Scans

If you've had scans that left you feeling relieved in the past, think about how you felt then. See if you can recapture some of those feelings.

Don't Go It Alone

Don't try to be a hero, or pretend you are strong, by going to your scans alone. Bring a friend with you. This may even be a good time to plan a special outing — say a lunch after your scan. What else can you do to make the day special and treat yourself? In addition to the distraction and diffusing your fear, this can be a great way to maintain connections that have often solidified during treatment. Or, in contrast, it can be a great opportunity to rekindle friendships that got put on the back burner due to treatment.

If you happen to be the loved one of someone coping with lung cancer scanxiety, check out what it's really like to live with cancer to get a few ideas about what your friend may be feeling.

Practice Reframing

Almost any situation in life can be looked at in more than one way. For example, hair loss due to chemotherapy can be viewed either as a sad time in which you have to wear a headscarf or a time when you don't have to shave your legs. Okay. That's pushing it a little. But though it may take a stretch, it can still be worth trying. From research to date it sounds like the phrase "fake it till you make it" can really work to change our attitudes in facing cancer.

Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude

If you've ever kept a gratitude journal during cancer, you've probably figured out that it's hard to experience gratitude and fear at the same time (though not impossible...) You may even want to write out a list of a few things you are grateful for. If you're having difficulty getting started, start simply. "We have enough toilet paper in the house." And go from there.

You may even want to list out some of the ways cancer has had a positive influence on your life. It's true, or at least medical research is beginning to suggest it's true. Cancer can change people for the better in some ways.

Repeat a Mantra

It may sound corny to repeat a mantra, but it can help pull some people out of the dumps. Try repeating, "I'm stronger than my scans," or something similar, and see if it helps. Or, if you prefer being quiet, consider praying or meditating.

Be Outrageous

Have you ever laughed until whatever fluids you're consuming came out of your nose? Studies tell us that humor is sometimes the best medicine, but we don't need medical research to tell us that. We wouldn't necessarily recommend TPing a hospital bathroom — which for some reason jumped to mind — but there are probably equally outrageous and fun and safe activities that could lighten your mood.

Reach out to Others With Cancer

If we were to pick only one idea for coping with scanxiety it would be this: reach out to those in your life who are similarly coping with cancer or some other concern. Not only can helping someone else take our minds off our own worries but can take a difficult situation and turn it into something good and lasting.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Thompson CA, Charlson ME, Schenkein E, et al. Surveillance CT scans are a source of anxiety and fear of recurrence in long-term lymphoma survivorsAnn Oncol. 2010;21(11):2262–2266. doi:10.1093/annonc/mdq215

  2. Bates GE, Mostel JL, Hesdorffer M. Cancer-related anxiety. JAMA Oncol. 2017;3(7):1007.

  3. Rosenberg AR, Bradford MC, Mccauley E, et al. Promoting resilience in adolescents and young adults with cancer: Results from the PRISM randomized controlled trial. Cancer. 2018;124(19):3909-3917. doi:10.1002/cncr.31666

Additional Reading
  • MD Anderson Cancer Center. 10 ways to reduce stress and anxiety during cancer treatment

  • National Cancer Society. Adjustment to Cancer: Anxiety and Distress (PDQ). Updated 01/07/15.

By Lynne Eldridge, MD
 Lynne Eldrige, MD, is a lung cancer physician, patient advocate, and award-winning author of "Avoiding Cancer One Day at a Time."