While there are many sources of anxiety that come with post-diagnosis treatments, “scanxiety” can be agonizing. It’s common for patients to experience this type of anxiety while waiting for a scan, during the scan, and while waiting for results.
Not only does it affect a person’s mental state and overall confidence, but it can also negatively affect their physical state.
Hower, it’s manageable with the right care and support.
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at scanxiety to help you overcome it.
Let’s get right to it.
What Is Scanxiety? [An Overview]
Scanxiety is the anxious feeling and fear that many cancer patients and survivors experience before, during, and after each scan.
This anxiety presents in different ways and at different points surrounding the experience of undergoing a scan.
The term generally applies to the negative feelings surrounding X-ray, MRI, CT/CAT, and ultrasound scans. However, it can also be a lingering feeling that starts long before and continues long after a scan has been performed.
How common is scanxiety?
One study found that around 55% of cancer patients experience some level of scanxiety.
The study took into account patients who had been diagnosed more than a year earlier. On a range of 1-10, the average severity score was 6.
While this study was conducted on a select group of patients, it highlights how common scanxiety is and how quickly it can occur in a person.
How scanxiety affects the mind
The typical mental effects of scanxiety include varying levels of distress and feelings of dread related to the scan.
The two most common forms of scanxiety are:
Anxiety: This is a general feeling of stress that can be exacerbated by fear of being observed while in a vulnerable state during the scan. Since patients are usually physically separate from their healthcare provider while undergoing a scan, it can trigger anxiety of varying degrees.
Distress: This can be emotional, mental, social, even spiritual discomfort. Distress includes a wide range of emotions that are not immediately related to the scan, but are caused by it nevertheless. Patients can experience panic, depression, general sadness, and a loss of control as forms of distress.
How scanxiety affects the body
The mental distress that scanxiety induces can cause physical changes to brain function.
When you’re experiencing anxiety and your body is under stress, your brain shrinks the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that controls memory and learning.
Anxiety can also weaken the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.
The prefrontal cortex operates the cognitive control functions, which guides decision-making after processing information. The amygdala, on the other hand, encodes memories and regulates emotions.
Considering how important these parts of the physical brain are, it’s easy to see how scanxiety can influence physical health.
To provide a better picture of the issue, here’s an infographic that explains the various aspects of scanxiety, its extent, and its impact.
What Triggers Scanxiety in Patients and Survivors?
The number of possible triggers makes it especially difficult to treat and overcome scanxiety.
In addition, the varied nature of the triggers makes it difficult to pinpoint specific influences.
Common triggers of scanxiety can be related to the scanning equipment itself, but some triggers are more intangible. Let’s take a closer look.
Triggers related to scanning equipment
X-ray machines, MRI machines, CT/CAT scanners, and ultrasound machines can all trigger anxiety.
The number and frequency of these examinations shed some light on how scanxiety related to equipment can be so common.
- To this day, around 150 million patients have had MRI exams. Additionally, around 10 million MRI exams are done on an annual basis.
- Even though X-ray exams decreased between 2010 and 2020 from 115.1 to 96.9 in every 1,000 patients, it’s still a significant number.
- Meanwhile, the number of CT/CAT scans almost doubled in the same period, from 87.4 to 115.7 for every 1,000 patients.
- The diagnostic ultrasound market is expected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 4% between 2022 and 2030.
All of this means there could be more frequent cases of scanxiety in the general population. That is, if we don’t put effective measures in place to address the root causes of scanxiety.
In many cases, machines themselves may be a cause of concern. X-ray machines, CT scanners, and nuclear imaging machines all use ionizing radiation.
These are high-energy particles and wavelengths that penetrate skin tissue to reveal what’s inside the body.
Although technology is improving, there is a risk of repeated scans causing cancer at a later date.
Intangible or psychological triggers
Some patients don’t actually have to undergo scans to be afraid of them.
Sometimes simply thinking of the potential results of a scan (either before or after the scan) can trigger scanxiety.
Intangible or psychological triggers usually occur when the patient:
- Is being screened for cancer
- Is waiting for the scan result
- Hears a cancer diagnosis
- Worries that cancer might occur again (during follow-up checks)
In addition to these, scanxiety could be triggered in a patient if they hear about someone they know being diagnosed with cancer, or if that person’s cancer reoccurs.
Risk Factors Associated with Scanxiety
People with persistent scanxiety risk running into problems in their social and domestic life.
These can include:
- Trouble performing daily activities such as eating meals at specific times, interacting with family, and doing professional work.
- Problems in family life and abnormal interactions with family members. This could take the form of erratic behavior with partners and children, and unprovoked lashing out.
- Physical problems such as fatigue, nausea, and pain. This could be a minor source of discomfort, or it could be severe enough to prevent the patient from performing certain daily tasks.
- Unmet social or spiritual needs. This could be a direct result of the patient’s changes in behavior due to persistent scanxiety.
If not addressed quickly, any of these conditions could worsen or develop into significant mental illnesses that further affect personal, domestic, and professional life.
How to Manage Scanxiety
The most important thing you need to know about scanxiety is that it is manageable!
There are interventions that will help overcome scanxiety. Help from the right people at the right time, saying the right things, can make all the difference.
Support and intervention
There are different levels and types of support and intervention that can help deal with onset scanxiety.
Here are some of the most important ones.
1. Joining a support group
Support groups can be very effective. Not only do they help to overcome psychological issues, but they also provide a support system.
A support group can help in the following ways:
- They provide a safe space where the patient can voice their fears out loud.
- They’re mostly free of judgemental opinions.
- Everything said within a support group is intended to stay within that support group.
- They sometimes develop into broader communities that help their members heal.
Scanxiety support groups may even help patients communicate better with their healthcare provider.
2. Communicating with friends and family
Sometimes family and friends make the best support system. Patients who are scared to seek help outside of the people they know can communicate with familiar faces.
This is effective in two major ways:
- There’s no need for the patient to introduce themselves to a whole new group of people.
- The patient can open up more easily because friends and family already know them.
Because friends and family already know the patient, they may be able to give more clear and concise support.
3. Being confident and vocal
Being confident despite the circumstances has a huge positive effect on a person’s mental state. Confidence can help overcome certain fears that could grow if the patient gives in to them.
For example, a patient is afraid of lying on their side or back for an extended period of time. If they let this fear take hold at every stage of the scanning process, it may develop into broader anxiety.
However, if they go into the exam with confidence and communicate confidently with their doctor, their confidence may carry into the procedure. In the latter scenario, the patient may not even notice how long the scan took.
Amanda C. Itliong is a cancer survivor and co-chair of the Quality Experience Committee of the ACR Commission on Patient- and Family-Centered Care.
She says, “One of the best practices that I’ve seen as a patient was at Michigan Medicine. While you’re waiting, the room has a blank binder with paper in it sitting on the table next to the magazines. They invite patients to write notes to other patients about what they’re experiencing. It is so simple and so powerful.”
Having the confidence to reveal the process and how you’re feeling about it may end up helping someone else too.
4. Exercising and being active
There was a recent study on the relationship between exercise and the risk of cancer-related mortality. The study found a 40-50% risk reduction in patients who exercised often.
This specific study focused on prostate, colorectal, and breast cancer.
The study also found that people who were active had a 10-20% lower risk of mortality from bladder, colon, endometrial, esophageal, and renal cancer.
Physical exercise has been known to help with several psychological symptoms, including anxiety. On the cancer front, it not only helps overcome scanxiety, but it may also improve survival rate.
5. Eating properly
Just like with exercise, diet is extremely important for anxiety and related symptoms.
Chemicals such as caffeine are known to make a person anxious and jittery if they consume too much of it. Junk food and overly processed foods are difficult to digest and have ingredients that cause anxiety and cravings.
Sugary foods are another major culprit.
All of this points to the importance of a healthy diet when a person has received a diagnosis.
A proper diet can be beneficial in two ways:
- It prevents the patient from consuming too many anxiety-causing chemicals.
- It will improve body chemistry, making them less anxious about the physical aspect of the scan.
Maintaining a proper diet may also help the treatment be more effective. Replacing junk food with healthy food allows the body to worry about one less thing on the road to recovery.
6. Sticking to a normal routine
Lastly, maintaining a normal routine helps reduce anxiety.
Scans and other major medical procedures are not considered part of a person’s normal routine. These are abnormal occurrences, even among patients who have grown quite familiar with the procedures.
When a patient otherwise sticks to their everyday routine, they prevent abnormal things like medical procedures from taking over the rest of the day. As much as possible, patients should go about the day as usual, communicate with people as they normally would, and keep up with daily tasks.
All of this helps the brain push anxiety to the back of the patient’s mind.
Researchers at MIT have developed a new AI system to accurately predict cancer risk.
Called the “Mirai” algorithm, the system is significantly more effective than the current Tyrer-Cuzick model. It not only helps predict overall risk, but it also identifies groups with higher risk of cancer.
Using this in place of the current clinical standard will help doctors better identify individual risk cases. This, in turn, will help them prepare patients more effectively.
Scanxiety may look like an uphill battle for those living with it, but it doesn’t have to be.
There are always new and innovative ways to fight scanxiety and other psychological effects related to cancer. There’s even new technology that looks to make the process easier and more streamlined for everyone involved.
Having the right support, keeping up regular communication with friends and family, being confident and vocal, staying physically active, eating a healthy diet, and sticking to their normal routine as much as possible can greatly improve a patient’s ability to be free from scanxiety and potentially have a better health outcome.