I’ll never forget the day I went for my first mammogram. I was 42 and had found a lime-sized lump in my left breast.
The mammogram was inconclusive. Everyone could feel the very apparent lump, but the mammogram didn’t really show anything too remarkable. The mammogram technician asked me if I could wait around for an hour because the physician wanted a better look. He wanted to do an ultrasound himself.
I suddenly felt my throat tighten and became very scared. I was keenly aware of my heart pounding — irregularly, it seemed. My stomach felt airy and strange. This feeling spread to my arms and legs.
Of course I would wait. I knew intuitively that something was wrong, and my body was vibrating with this thought. My hands were shaking so bad!
I sat on a stool in a tiny dressing room in the breast health center, in a hospital gown, behind a curtain, thumbing through dog-eared magazines with those shaking hands. I was looking at these magazines but seeing nothing.
Terrible cancer thoughts overwhelmed me.
My breathing continued to be uneven and shallow. My armpits were damp. Mouth, dry. Swallowing, labored. Waiting that hour for the ultrasound felt like torture.
I didn’t know the term “scanxiety” yet, or that it was part of the nomenclature in the cancer world. But in retrospect, this experience was certainly a full-blown bout of scanxiety, the anxiety that accompanies the period of time before, during, and after medical scans related to your cancer.
For me, anything being done to scan my body for evidence of cancer can cause scanxiety, whether it’s an imaging scan, biopsy, bloodwork, or my ongoing quarterly oncology checks-ins.
Waiting for the results of these scans is the most terrible part, as I deal with the fear of recurrence of the stage 3C invasive lobular carcinoma I was diagnosed with in 2014. I might wait minutes or days for results while the scanxiety just keeps spiking, showing up as some or all of the following:
- constant worry
- shallow breathing
- focus issues
- airy feeling in the pit of my stomach
- loss of appetite
- upset stomach
- tight throat
- dry mouth
Sometimes, it is so intense that at its highest peaks it has emptied my bowels suddenly and virulently. I’m so offended by these visceral physical reactions! No fun.
I don’t remember how I got through waiting for the results of that first ultrasound years ago, but I’m glad to say that over the years, I’ve learned some coping skills based on the severity of the scanxiety.
Here’s what works for me:
We hear this all the time, but it’s so true. Since my breathing seems to get shallow and my thoughts race all over the place, I’ve found that the most basic of box breathing techniques helps:
- Focus your attention on your breathing.
- Inhale to the count of four.
- Hold for the count of four.
- Exhale to the count of four.
Box breathing has served me well in many stressful moments to regulate my stressed-out breathing and calm down. Sometimes, I will be working at my desk and need to stop, close my eyes, and breathe through a few songs. (Khruangbin’s “The Universe Smiles Upon You” album is super chill and works for me.)
I’ve even done box breathing while waiting in line at Target!
I only recently got into meditation a couple of years ago while attending an integrative healing retreat for patients with breast cancer at Commonweal in Bolinas, California. The retreat was designed to promote healing the trauma of cancer with various modalities, and guided meditation was one of them.
It was a major coping discovery for me. How was I not doing this since day 1 of cancer? I wish I had been turned on to mediation when I was newly diagnosed. It’s like next-level box breathing or something.
I’ve been super into my meditation practice since and use the meditation app Headspace almost daily.
Some days, it’s more difficult for me to focus, and other days I can easily slip into a meditation while sitting in my car waiting to pick up my son from school. It has truly helped me temper down general anxiety, especially during exhausting scanxiety spikes.
Find a soft place to land in the breast cancer community
A game changer for me was when I began connecting with others in the breast cancer community. Nothing beats connecting with others who just get it.
Talking with breast cancer friends can ease scanxiety like nothing else. I’ve seen the benefits of community in my role as community guide for the BC Healthline app for 2 years now.
Members post about scanxiety all the time, and the community always embraces and encourages them with so much love and empathy. It’s so easy to just pull out your phone and check in.
Consult with the pros
Since I’ve had varying degrees of depression and anxiety from being newly diagnosed and into my survivorship, I know the emotional and physical trauma of cancer is too much at times.
When I was just exhausted from struggling with it all, I sought help from my oncologist and primary care physician for relief. I got prescription medication for depression and anxiety, and use a therapist as needed. I’m so glad I took this self-care measure.
These tools ease my regular depression and anxiety, and make coping with bouts of scary scanxiety easier to rein in.
Don’t suffer in silence. Don’t think you have to be some badass cancer warrior. This is not an endurance test.
Take a hike
The famous naturalist John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
Nature as self-care has soothed my scanxiety too many times to count. Hiking and beach-combing are more than exercise for me. The combination of physical activity mixed with the beauty of nature slows down my disconcerting scanxiety thoughts big time.
I hope you can try some of these tips next time you’re experiencing scanxiety. If you pop into the BC Healthline app for some support, do slide into my DMs and say hello. I’ve got your back!
Monica Haro is a Bay Area native, where she’s presently raising her son Christian. She’s the community guide for the breast cancer support app BC Healthline, serves on the board of directors with Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS), and has shown her breast cancer advocacy art exhibit with El Comalito Collective in Vallejo, California, the past 3 years. Coffee, books, music, and art make her happy. Follow her on Instagram or connect with her via email.