Sweaty palms, racing heart, nausea. All of these can be signs of a type of anxiety I like to call scanxiety. The term covers the anxiety associated with medical scans and waiting at appointments.
Painful memories and anxiety can resurface at any time after you’ve been through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. I find that these feelings are particularly common when returning to a familiar facility or waiting for scan results. Even if the procedure is routine.
Scanxiety can have a particularly big impact on your life when you have a host of required medical appointments for something seemingly positive, like a pregnancy.
My pregnancy triggered scanxiety
I never so much as broke a bone for almost the first three decades of my life. I wasn’t one to regularly see the doctor.
My breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 27 became my first and primary association with hospitals and the medical profession.
I had an amazing care team, but I still came to associate hospitals and waiting for medical procedures with pain and negative outcomes.
Even regular appointments after my cancer treatments triggered anxiety and sent me down a rabbit hole. I was fearful I’d receive bad medical news that could rock my world once again.
Then I got pregnant. An ectopic pregnancy and a miscarriage 6 months later only fueled my worry and anxiety associated with doctors’ offices.
Then, I got pregnant again. Ultrasounds especially came to cause particular fear. So much so that I would break into a sweat and be near vomiting before I even entered the room. I couldn’t get the memory of hearing those words “you have cancer” or “there is no heartbeat” out of my mind.
Here’s how I made it through 9 months of pregnancy and regular medical appointments after cancer without losing my mind.
Tips to handle medical anxiety after cancer
Identify your body’s stress responses
Stress symptoms can physically affect your body in different ways. Learning my body’s physical responses to stress helped me to manage my anxiety before it took over.
For example, my nausea would hit when we walked into the doctor’s office. I recognized that I wasn’t really ill and that my anxiety was causing a physical response. That knowledge allowed me to put my stress relief tools into action sooner.
Separate the past from the present
This is much easier said than done. But it helped for me to call out the difference explicitly and verbally.
My husband sat with me in the room during appointments when my anxiety was at its highest. He’d remind me “this is not last year.” And “this is not your diagnosis.”
It helped us to call out this separation and remember we were walking a different path.
Focusing on something in the moment also helped take the focus away from worrying about the what-ifs or test results. I’d tune into my breath or think about our immediate plans after the appointment.
Meditate or apply other relaxation tools
Over the years, particularly those living with cancer, I’ve found tools that help me calm down in the most stressful situations.
I have a few meditation tracks that I love, peppermint essential oils, and deep stomach breathing techniques. I rely on these to self-soothe whenever my scanxiety reappears.
I found that scanxiety often hits both immediately before and after an appointment. You leave the comfort of the doctor and your mind races. You assume the worst.
My husband and I made a rule: “No Googling.” Instead, I emailed my favorite nurse if I wanted information or needed reassuring. Googling only fueled my anxiety and panic.
Get some sleep
Sleep plays a huge role in your ability to cope with stress. And your immune system relies on sleep to function at its best.
I always aimed to ensure that I was well-rested whenever I knew I had an appointment or scan coming up. I think it helped me face the scanxiety that I knew would arise.
I still face scanxiety on a regular basis, and I know that it won’t necessarily ever go away. But with these tools, I am better equipped to manage and cope with my anxiety in healthy ways.
I hope some of these tools will be helpful for you too.
For more information on how to manage a cancer diagnosis, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
NPS-US-NP-00647 MAY 2020