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Scanxiety: Managing Fear About Breast Cancer Follow-Up Scans

Posted on December 08, 2022
Medically reviewed by
Richard LoCicero, M.D.
Article written by
Emily Wagner, M.S.

  • Some people in remission after breast cancer treatment may feel “scanxiety” — anxiety or stress about follow-up scans for cancer.
  • They may worry their cancer has returned or may be concerned about preparing for or undergoing the scan.
  • There are effective ways to manage scanxiety and reduce stress around follow-ups.

After completing breast cancer treatment, there may be times when you will be scheduled for body imaging, such as a mammogram, an ultrasound, or a CT, MRI, or positron emission tomography (PET) scan. For many people, waiting for these scans and the results can bring stress, worry, or anxiety. These feelings are common among many breast cancer survivors, and MyBCTeam members often share support and tips on ways to cope.

It is important to understand that “routine” scans (other than mammograms for remaining breast tissue) are not generally recommended for the follow-up of breast cancer after initial treatment for stages 1, 2, and 3. In patients treated for metastatic (spread to other places — stage 4) breast cancer, scans may be used to monitor response to treatment.

This article covers useful techniques regarding how to manage anxiety about scans and support your well-being as you navigate follow-up care.

What Is Scanxiety?

Scanxiety, short for scan anxiety, refers to the anxious feelings experienced around the time of scans. This anxiety may happen before or during an exam and/or while waiting for the results. For many people who have completed treatment for breast cancer, these scans can be a source of anxiety. Many are nervous that they may learn their cancer has returned, while others may feel anxiety about the scan process itself.

Feelings of Scanxiety

Anxiety can be a difficult emotion to manage. Signs of anxiety include:

  • Feeling tense and nervous
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilating)
  • Having trouble concentrating or focusing on things other than anxious thoughts
  • Experiencing an increased heart rate
  • Feeling a sense of impending panic or danger
  • Having trouble controlling worrying or anxious thoughts
  • Getting stomachaches and pains without any other explanation
  • Having trouble sleeping

You may experience anxiety specifically related to cancer scans. Some people may have to prepare for scans by traveling or finding child care. Others may be nervous about the actual scans and tests themselves. For example, you may be anxious about experiencing claustrophobia during a PET scan, having a needle placed for an intravenous line, or feeling sick while drinking a contrast agent needed for a scan.

Waiting for the results from your mammogram, CT scan, or PET scan can also be a source of anxiety. After your scans, it may take a few days to get the results and meet with your oncologist. This waiting period can be a stressful time filled with worries about the possible outcomes.

Many people also worry about their breast cancer returning. They may think back on how anxious they were when they first received their cancer diagnosis and are reluctant to experience that again. Although scans can be a difficult experience for some, they’re an important part of cancer survivorship and help ensure that you stay healthy.

What MyBCTeam Members Say About Scanxiety

Members of MyBCTeam often share their worries about scans and support each other through follow-ups.

One member wrote, “I have a CT scan at the end of the month, and my care team is waiting to see what it says. I’m a little worried. Cancer is an emotional roller coaster!”

“I’m a bit on edge because I have a CT scan tomorrow,” shared another. “Mostly worried that we’ll find growth and I’ll need to change to a different chemo regimen.”

“My oncologist wanted a baseline bone scan and CT, which I had today,” said another member. “Waiting for results is the WORST!”

“I’m feeling really well but starting to get a bit anxious,” posted another member of MyBCTeam. “My scans to check the progress of my treatments are coming up. Praying for good results and also wondering how others stay stress-free during these times 😊.”

Tips for Managing Scanxiety

If you find yourself feeling scanxiety about an upcoming scan, there are some strategies you can use to help manage your anxious feelings. Anxiety can be both mental and physical, so it’s important to recognize which symptoms you’re feeling so that they can be addressed.

Keep a Busy and Consistent Routine Around Your Scan Date

Anxiety often stems from worrying about things we can’t control. As your scan date gets closer, try to stick to things you can control in your life, including your daily routine. Try to keep a consistent sleep schedule, get regular exercise, and meet often with family and friends. Keeping yourself busy can help keep your mind distracted with other things, leaving less time to worry about your scan.

Try to incorporate a few small goals to accomplish each day. These may be as simple as doing the dishes or taking a 20-minute walk around your neighborhood. Giving yourself something to focus on each day can give you a sense of control and accomplishment.

Prepare Questions To Ask Your Care Team

Try to schedule your scan earlier in the day so you spend less time that day worrying beforehand. Before heading to your appointment, make a list of questions to ask your oncologist and care team. These can include how to prepare for the scan, how long it will take, and when you should expect the results. You can also schedule a follow-up appointment with your care team to address any concerns you have. They can also help you find ways to manage your anxiety, which may include prescribing sedating medication if needed.

Use Relaxation Techniques

If you feel yourself getting anxious, you can try different relaxation techniques. These methods focus on your breathing and being in the present, which can help control worry about the future. Guided breathing exercises or meditations can help you focus by taking slow, deep breaths. Count to five while breathing in, hold in for five, then breathe out for five. As you do this, your heart rate and breathing pace will go down. You can find guided meditations and breathing exercises online to follow.

Yoga and tai chi also focus on breathing and rhythm to center your attention on the present moment. They’re also a great way to add exercise to your day that can be done from the comfort of your home. You can find yoga or tai chi instruction videos online or at your local library.

Keep Your Confidence

Living with and beating breast cancer is a scary and overwhelming experience, and many people have a fear of recurrence (cancer coming back). This fear may be worsened if the cancer is metastatic. However, it’s important to remember how resilient you’ve been through this whole process and the strength that got you to where you are today. You’ve handled hurdles in the past, and now you have even more skills and knowledge to persevere.

Finding Support From Others With Scanxiety

If you’re dealing with scanxiety, you’re not alone. Many MyBCTeam members have shared their experiences with scanxiety. It can help to know and talk to others who have the same concerns as you.

One member said, “I have stage 4, which has been stable for over 2 years with treatment and radiation. Last week, cancer markers jumped by 50 percent from the month before. My doctor wanted me to get a PET scan ASAP, so today I drove 70 miles to a place that could fit me in. I am having scanxiety to the max. How do you handle it?” Other members replied with messages of support and words of encouragement.

Another member shared, “I know the anxiety you feel. Try hard not to let it eat you up. I stay super busy on blood work/scan days. I try to keep my mind occupied.”

You can also look for support from your family members, friends, and caregivers. Surviving breast cancer can leave a large emotional impact on you, and those close to you can help you through your experience. Breast cancer scans will be a part of your life for years after treatment ends, and having a strong support group in person through a cancer center or MyBCTeam with other cancer survivors can help you understand and manage your anxiety.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 60,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.

Have you felt anxious about your follow-up scans? What has helped you manage your anxiety? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
    Richard LoCicero, M.D. has a private practice specializing in hematology and medical oncology at the Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center, in Gainesville, Georgia. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
    Emily Wagner, M.S. holds a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology. She is passionate about immunology, cancer biology, and molecular biology. Learn more about her here.

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