How to banish ‘scanxiety’ and pre-checkup nerves

Apr 2022

As a study reports that 83 percent of cancer patients experience scanxiety, here’s what the experts say to manage your nerves.

Being a cancer patient – be that past or present – inevitably means regular tests and check-ups and some become so tense about these appointments that it can feel quite overwhelming.

If this applies to you then take heart that you aren’t alone – one study, published in the journal Lung Cancer, reported that 83 per cent of cancer patients experience pre-checkup anxiety in the days and weeks running up to their appointment.

In some cases that feeling of dread can be so intense it continues for days beyond the appointment.

There’s even a name for it – scanxiety.

It can be a particular problem for men with prostate cancer who have opted for active surveillance, which involves regular tests rather than any active treatment.

One study from Cancer Research UK found that men having active surveillance for prostate cancer were three times more likely to experience high-level anxiety than the general population.

Adam Stern, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has his own insights into the issue.

‘I’m familiar with ‘scanxiety’ at both personal and professional levels,’ he says. ‘As someone living with advanced cancer, I become anxious and irritable about 7-10 days before my quarterly scans. Even knowing all I do professionally, functioning without distraction remains a real challenge.’

When he feels his anxiety levels starting to rise he writes down how he is feeling – as a way to defuse his rising tension.

‘I find that processing my emotions in that way helps to gain some power over them.

‘Other times, I might simply redirect my energy toward something attention-grabbing so as not to allow the anxiety to dominate my thought process. Even an activity as simple as exercising or playing a game with my kids can be both useful and distracting.’

Dr Marc Kingsley, an NHS consultant clinical psychologist based in Essex says there are a number of different coping tips that can help make scanxiety feel more manageable.

‘Whether it’s your first scan, or there’s a possibility of a recurrence, perhaps the PSA levels may be off or something doesn’t seem right and you’ve been asked to go for more tests – one of the best things for you to do is normalise the anxiety you feel,’ he says.

‘Stress, worry and dread are very normal responses. 

‘As men, we are often conditioned to believe we need to control our feelings.

‘So it’s important to be accepting that there is nothing wrong with feeling stress and worry – it is absolutely understandable.

‘Once that’s accepted, it’s really good to share those feelings with someone. Talk to somebody that gets it, such as someone who has gone through it.’

There are many community based groups on the internet where you can find someone like this including NowWhat

Another tip Dr Kingsley recommends is recognising when your worries are intensifying or becoming difficult to manage.

‘This is what we call rumination,’ he says.

‘If you notice yourself doing this, step back and ask yourself, “What am I feeling now? Are these thoughts at 3.30am in the morning helpful for me? Will it change anything?” This in itself can bring a sense of control.’

Other self-help measures he suggests include noticing how the tension affects you physically.

‘Just be aware of if your breathing getting faster? Are you getting a headache?’

Taking time to tell yourself that what you’re feeling is just part of your nervous reaction can help stop the presence of these physical symptoms ‘adding to your anxiety,’ he says.

But in some cases self-help alone isn’t enough.

‘If you find the feelings really running away with you then seeking extra support from a healthcare professional, such as a therapist can be of benefit,’ says Dr Kinglsey.

‘There is sadly still a preconception in our society that we should manage our feelings and emotional distress without ‘making a fuss.’

‘But we wouldn’t leave a physically painful sore, and similarly we shouldn’t leave our emotional pain untreated.’