Cancer ‘Scanxiety’ Is a Real (and Terrifying) Thing

I recently came across a word new to me, ‘Scanxiety’, on a medical website. It describes cancer patients’ fear and worry associated with scans, both before, and after, waiting for the results. It seems that doctors in general do not fully understand the distress caused by this repeated ordeal that patients go through. Would you agree that, until you’ve had cancer, you cannot possibly get the full extent of what goes through the mind of someone waiting for a scan or scan results? Because our very future depends on those results… those words from our doctor’s mouth after a scan, can damn or reprieve us. When a scan or its result is approaching, one person described it as, ‘“You’re in this constant tug of war between trying not to think about it, and having it consume you.”

In the early stages, (people who are successfully treated and have no evidence of disease,) the underlying fear is about cancer coming back and the dreaded implications. In people whose disease has already spread, the fear is based on scans potentially revealing that our latest treatment has not been effective, or our disease has progressed. So, at either stage of disease, scan results may bring devastating news.

One person described scans as, “Like revolving doors, emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side. Land on red, we’re in for another trip to Cancerland; land on black, we have a few more months of freedom.” The stakes are high. Any relief is temporary as the next scan will be on the horizon soon.

The extent of this fear is very rational because the results of each scan can, literally, be a matter of life or death. It is also irrational because patients feel it regardless of the actual probability of bad results. ‘Scanxiety’ can have a huge impact on our wellbeing. It is definitely a very real experience; maybe lowering our mood, making us irritable, or maybe affecting our sleep or concentration. Research shows 83% of patients experience distress caused by scans.

But the word itself seems to me a little jokey, or trendy, and minimises the level of fear and stress that scans cause. For that reason, I’m not very keen on the word becoming common parlance. So why have I brought it to peoples’ attention by writing this article? It’s because it helps me, and hopefully reassures others, that they are not alone in experiencing the fear and dread associated with scans and scan results. It is very real. For those who’d like to see more examples, visit Twitter and search #scanxiety. There is also an American podcast with 2 patients discussing what scans mean to them:


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