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Scanxiety’: The Fear And Anxiety Of Cancer Screenings

Cancer survivor Sunny Golden waits for a screening at Sharp Grossmont Hospita...

Credit: Matt Bowler

Above: Cancer survivor Sunny Golden waits for a screening at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, Sept. 19, 2017.

In 2014, Sunny Golden went into the doctor’s office complaining of a persistent cough.

She came out with a diagnosis of stage 3 lung cancer.

Golden immediately went through chemotherapy and radiation.

Thankfully, her scans have been clean for three years. But to be on the safe side, Golden has to get screened four times a year. And each time, her anxiety goes off the charts.

'Scanxiety'

“You’re like, OK, do I have three more months. Or is this it? And that’s all you can think of," Golden said. "You want to think the positive, but the negative comes up, too.”

To make matters worse, Golden does not usually get the results of her scan for a couple of days.

“You’re just on pins and needles," she said. "What’s it gonna be? And so many people in my support group, they come in and they have a bad PET scan, and you think, 'am I gonna be the next one?'”

Providers know about it

"Scanxiety" is not an official medical term. Even so, doctors and other providers who treat cancer patients are well acquainted with it.

Dr. Haydee Ojeda-Fournier, medical director of breast imaging at UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, said anxiety is one of the risk factors of breast cancer screening.

To help alleviate it, Ojeda tries to get patients their results the same day.

"The majority of the screening studies are going to be negative, and we want to let the patients know," she said. "About 10 percent of the patients will have to come back because we see something that needs to be evaluated further.”

But Ojeda said many times, those patients do not come back.

“There’s very poor compliance on those patients," she said. "They just don’t want to come back in often, and it’s usually because of the anxiety of having to do the study.”

Relieving scanxiety

That is why at Moores, they are trying to lessen the discomfort and anxiety of breast cancer screenings, by using what is called a sensory suite.

RELATED: UC San Diego Awarded $5.8M For Cancer Therapy Research

In the suite, which is a converted exam room, women get a mammography while they see images of a garden and listen to recordings of birds. To add to the relaxing vibe, the suite uses aromatherapy.

Linda Hutkin-Slade, an oncology social worker with Sharp HealthCare, is a cancer survivor herself. She has a lot of empathy for people who suffer from scanxiety.

Hutkin-Slade offers tips to her patients to help them plan for the scan.

“When are you going to get the results? Who might be with you? What would your plan be if it’s bad news, (or) if it’s not bad news? Some of the (tips) are breathing techniques and stress-relieving techniques, too," she said.

Hutkin-Slade recommends patients bring a friend along as a distraction, and plan a fun outing for after the scan.

A necessary thing

A certain amount of fear and worry is to be expected. After all, cancer is a life-threatening disease.

But as Hutkin-Slade sees it, scanxiety does not have to be debilitating.

“Sometimes, it’s just a tough piece of life as a cancer patient, that a scan is something you have to do, whether you like it or not. And so sometimes, you just have to suck it up and go for it," she said.

There is a name for the fear and anguish cancer patients experience when they face their periodic screenings: "scanxiety."

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