By Emily Weaver, Social Work Counselor
You're sitting in the waiting room, your heart is racing, your palms are sweating and your blood pressure is rising.
You've had difficulty sleeping the past few nights because your mind is racing with worries about your upcoming CT or MRI scans.
You've considered cancelling your appointment, but know it will only delay your care in the long run.
Patients and cancer professionals call this "scanxiety." And, because CT and MRI scans are associated with the diagnosis of cancer, scanxiety is a normal feeling.
But sometimes scanxiety can interfere with your daily life and the ability to engage in your own medical care.
Here are strategies you can use to help manage scanxiety.
One strategy is to create an automatic thought record, a simple chart that helps you identify problematic thought patterns that trigger anxiety.
There are three basic steps for using a thought record to counteract scanxiety.
First, whenever feelings of anxiety creep up, write down the situation that triggered the emotion.
Second, jot down exactly how the situation makes you feel and the emotions you are experiencing.
Third, write down the thoughts this situation is causing you to think.
For example: "I'm waiting in the exam room to meet with my oncologist to receive MRI results. I feel anxious and my palms are sweaty, my heart is racing and I'm light-headed. I'm thinking, 'I'm going to have cancer again.'"
Once you've written this down, look it over and decide if there's reason to believe the thoughts are true or if your anxiety is distorting your thoughts.
If, on second look, you think some of your automatic thoughts may be faulty, jot down more realistic thoughts.
For example, instead of writing, "The doctor is going to tell me I have cancer," think instead:
- "I've had this scan 20 times now since being in remission and I haven't been told that I have cancer again."
- "I've been feeling physically great, my last symptoms of cancer were that I was tired and in pain." Or,
- "I can handle this. I've done it before."
Once you've identified a problematic thought pattern, try using coping cards to counteract thoughts that trigger anxiety.
Simply write down your realistic thought statements on index cards, and read them yourself during situations that lead to anxiety.
These cards are great because they can be used immediately, and you can take them to your appointments and scans.
Try relaxation techniques
Sometimes the fears you face as a cancer patient are real and might not involve any "faulty thinking."
If this is the case, consider other options that work on changing behaviors to reduce anxiety. Try redirecting yourself from the thoughts about upcoming scans with deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery.
Simple tips that can make a big difference
Here are some practical tips you can use to help cope with scanxiety:
- Schedule scans early in the day to reduce your chances of a long wait.
- Distract yourself with music or games on your phone, or read a newspaper or novel.
- Invite a family member, friend or clergy to accompany you to your appointment.
- Make small talk with other patients in the waiting area.
- Talk with the medical team about suggestions to reduce your anxiety about your upcoming CT and MRI scans.