Many patients with cancer know the feeling well: fear starts to creep in as their follow-up scan approaches, and then once the imaging is over, the wait begins before the results come in.
The term “scanxiety” was coined to describe this fear around imaging, and recently at the Abramson Cancer Center’s 10th Focus on Lung Cancer Conference, Andrew R. Haas, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, discussed ways patients can cope.
Haas mentioned that there are 2 instances that will often trigger scanxiety: before a cancer diagnosis – when a physician tells a person that something looks “suspicious” on their scan and they need to wait for more information – and after someone has been diagnosed and treated for cancer, and they have to go in for frequent scans – usually every 3 to 6 months – to see if the disease has progressed.
“As patients come to see me, the first thing they want to know is what their scans show,” Haas said. “You can feel the tension in the room and cut it with a knife waiting for that conversation about the CT scan. How individuals cope with that is where the difference lies. Seeking the right treatments for that anxiety is crucial.”
Haas’ first tip is to maintain as much normalcy as possible leading up to the scan, be it exercising, creating art or just enjoying time with friends and family.
“Do those things that you typically do. This can benefit you socially, as well as mentally,” he said.
When it comes to socialization, Haas emphasized that those experiencing scanxiety should not block themselves off from loved ones, though he recognized that this might be a difficult step.
“It’s kind of just that feeling of living on edge,” he said. “When patients feel this way, they often isolate themselves from their family members, because they maybe know that they’re feeling like this and don’t want their family to see them like this.”
Haas said that it is important for patients to communicate with their caregivers and loved ones about how they are feeling, and if there are any ways that they can be supported. However, he also recognized that family members may not be able to make all the pain go away, and that many benefit from seeking professional psychosocial help.
“It’s not a failure to recognize that you’re having struggles. The important thing is that you recognize it and get help,” he said.
Also, in line with finding the right help, Haas emphasized that building a trustworthy care team – including oncologists, nurses, navigators, therapists and more – is essential, and that patients should be comfortable coming to their practitioners with any questions or concerns that they have.
Asking health care providers questions is particularly important in the age of the internet, where there is a slew of information available at people’s fingertips. Some of this information can be informative and truthful, while other information is not, and instead, only provokes more fear.
“Be mindful what you read, whether you’re (in the stages of) pre-cancer or after cancer,” Haas said. “There’s a lot of information on the web, and a lot of that information may not be reliable and cause anxiety.”
And, if possible, Haas recommends not giving patients much time to scour the internet between getting their scans done and having them read by their physician – limiting the timeframe when anxiety can build.
“Try to make your CT scan and the time to talk to your doctor as short as possible,” he said.
Ultimately, patients who experience scanxiety should never go through it alone. Talking with family members, health care professionals or even a support group can help to lift that weight off their shoulders.
“Finding others who are going through the same processes and anxieties can be very helpful,” Haas said. “You’re not alone.”
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