Scanxiety Is Real, but You Can Take Steps to Reduce It.

Nov 9, 2017 8:23:00 AM

Posted by Diane Campbell

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anxiety.jpgYou may have heard the term “scanxiety” used to refer to the often intense feeling of anxiety and fear that can surround imaging exams, particularly for patients who have or have had cancer. While scan-related anxiety has not traditionally been a primary concern in cancer treatment, it is gaining attention as an aspect of the illness that deserves more attention.


Why Focus on Anxiety?

The life-and-death nature of cancer treatment can cause doctors and patients alike to minimize scan-related anxiety and deter patients from discussing their fears with health care providers. A study published in the October 2016 issue of the journal Lung Cancer, however, found that 83% of respondents reported scan-related distress, which was associated with a diminished quality of life. The severity of patients’ anxiety was not influenced by the amount of time that had passed since their diagnosis nor whether a recent scan was discussed during the study visit.[1]

Researchers used the Impact of Event Scale, developed for the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to measure patients’ anxiety. Scans are, to many patients, traumatic events. Experts report that follow-up scans can trigger classic PTSD symptoms in some patients, especially those with more advanced disease or higher levels of pain. These symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, irritability, and sleeplessness that interfere with a patient’s ability to function at work and in social situations as well as a tendency to avoid places or things that remind them of traumatic events. Because an imaging exam can be one of these trauma reminders, this can directly interfere with a cancer patient’s treatment or follow-up.[2]

Dr. Randy Hillard, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University, reports, "One of the major reasons that cancer treatments don’t work is that people don’t follow treatment and surveillance plans…. I know of people who have quit getting scans, so it's worth talking about scanxiety with patients because of its impact on treatment and disease course." [3]


How can scanxiety be reduced?

While anxiety around imaging tests is normal, there are some things patients can do to keep it in check and prevent fear from getting in the way of their treatment and follow-up or overshadowing the good things in their lives. Strategies suggested by cancer patients and their care providers include

  • Meditation or breathing exercises
  • Taking care to get enough sleep, proper nutrition, and regular exercise
  • Spending time with a child (because children naturally live in the moment rather than worrying about the future or past)
  • Bringing a supportive friend or family member with you to imaging appointments
  • Playing loud music
  • Asking your doctor to prescribe anxiety-reducing medication
  • Having a plan in mind before the scan for next steps in case results are not what you’re hoping for
  • Getting scans scheduled and results returned as quickly as possible
  • Scheduling scans early in the day to minimize waiting
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy

In this context, cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on reshaping the way patients think about their anxiety triggers, encouraging them to identify unhelpful thoughts and replacing them with truthful statements that better serve their needs. Patients are asked to examine what they’re telling themselves about a scan and its implications and how true and healthy those statements are. Once unhelpful thoughts are identified, patients work to replace them with thoughts that are more accurate and helpful.


At Iowa Radiology, we prioritize our patients’ comfort. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you have about imaging scheduled or performed at our clinics, and let us know how we can help make your appointments as comfortable as possible. We have music headsets and blankets on hand; just ask about any other items that you would like to have with you during your exam. If you’ve recently received a callback after your mammogram, you can learn the basics about mammography follow-up by accessing our free ebook; simply click the link below.


Mammography follow up ebook



[1] Mulcahy. "Cancer 'Scanxiety' Is a Real (Terrifying) Thing." Medscape. WebMD LLC, 10 Feb 2017. Accessed 3 Oct 2017.

[2] "Coping with “Scanxiety” during and after Cancer Treatment." Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 18 Jan 2013. Accessed 3 Oct 2017.

[3] Mulcahy. "Cancer 'Scanxiety' Is a Real (Terrifying) Thing." Medscape. WebMD LLC, 10 Feb 2017. Accessed 3 Oct 2017.


The information contained in the Iowa Radiology website is presented as public service information only. It is not intended to be nor is it a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider if you think you may have a medical problem before starting any new treatment, or if you have any questions regarding your medical condition.

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Topics: cancer, CT scan

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