A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Scanxiety common in cancer survivors

Scananxiety-Family-Survivors_IAlthough 17-year-old Ryan Dieringer of Hewitt is now cancer-free, his parents Derek and Becky fear they’ll learn the disease has returned each time he gets a scan.

“The thought of scans makes so many emotions come out that it’s difficult to describe them,” Derek said.

The onslaught of emotions started with a scan.

In March 2015, Ryan went from being a three-sport student athlete to barely walking because of debilitating hip pain. MRI revealed a tumor pressing on a nerve bundle near the base of his spine.

The diagnosis was Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare, aggressive bone cancer primarily diagnosed in children and young adults. Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor. During the next 11 months, he underwent 17 rounds of chemotherapy, plus radiation. He responded well to the treatment.

Then came another set of scans to verify he was cancer-free.

Anxiety set in for the Dieringers. They hadn’t heard of “scanxiety” but quickly realized it refers to the common fear connected with getting scans after cancer treatment is complete.

Ewing’s sarcoma has a high recurrence rate, so Ryan must undergo scans every three months for the first three years after treatment and then yearly for seven years. Every time scans are around the corner, the Dieringers experience scanxiety.

Anxiety before, during and after scans

“The week before scans is a rough one,” Derek said. “No matter what you try, the scans are all you can think about.”

Anticipation of an upcoming scan day often rekindles the fight or flight stress response. Fears of physical or emotional discomfort or recalling the test that led to a cancer diagnosis are very normal, said Mindy Gribble, registered nurse and coordinator of the WINGS program for cancer survivors at Marshfield Clinic.

Then it’s time to wait for results. For the Dieringers, that means fearing Ryan’s cancer will return and anxiety about the next scan.

“You think of all the things he’s been through and the horrible possibility that it may come back,” Derek said.

The fear of cancer returning in your child is unimaginable.”

The Dieringers cope with scanxiety by trying to keep their mind off of it between scans. Every patient’s and family’s coping mechanisms are different, Gribble said.

Get distracted

“For us, coping is really about staying busy,” Derek said. “We lead active lives and our kids are always involved in something. That provides a welcome distraction.”

On the day of your appointment, Gribble recommends distracting yourself by bringing music, a book or a friend to talk to.

Whatever your method, know that it’s normal for scanxiety to return.

“No matter how hard you try, when you have downtime, the thought of the next set of scans comes creeping back in,” Derek said.

Change your mindset

“Sometimes it helps to think about the benefits of scans,” Gribble said. “ Getting scanned is the safest path you can take, even if it feels scary. Scans can detect recurrence early, make sure treatment is working correctly and help you and your providers decide on the best course of care.”

If you need to escape the thought of a scan completely, take a mini vacation in your mind to your favorite place. Envision the scenery, sounds and smells around you.

Regain control, or release it

If a sense of control reduces your anxiety, try these tips:

  • Schedule your scan in the morning so you don’t spend all day thinking about it.
  • Ask when you can expect your test results and whom you can call if you haven’t been contacted by that time.
  • Practice calming breathing techniques to relax your body’s stress response.

For others, it’s helpful to accept that what happens next may be out of their hands.

“We know we’ve done everything possible and the rest is in God’s hands,” Derek said.

Our photo in this story is of Ryan with his family (l. to r.):  Evan, Becky, Ryan and Derek.

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