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Tackling Cancer Anxiety

No matter how long I deal with periodic blood tests, abdominal CTs and mammograms, they always trigger a huge wave of ‘scanxiety.’

Last year, right before the winter holidays, the nurse practitioner palpating my breast paused and returned to a certain spot.

It was just below the port embedded in my chest that has been used for years of ovarian cancer treatment and above the scar from a previous lumpectomy. The terror that must overwhelm countless women engulfed me. “Maybe nothing,” she said, guiding my fingers to feel what she felt. “I’ll set up a mammogram.” I grimaced, knowing that anxiety always swamps me before scans.

No matter how long I deal with ovarian cancer, scanxiety threatens to assert its nasty vigor in advance of periodic blood tests and abdominal CTs. During my last breast cancer scare less than a year earlier, I had scanxiety over a mammogram and then a biopsy, which led to that lumpectomy. There would be seven fretful days between the detection of this second lump in the same breast and the scheduled scan. If the finding turned out to be indeterminate, should I “wait and see” since the last breast biopsy was painful? If the new growth was a recurrence, should I get a prophylactic double mastectomy?

Yet I knew from experience that this sort of frightful perseverating about potential — but not inevitable — decision-making squanders spirit and time. Without solid evidence, stressing over unknowns does not alter what the outcome will be; it only escalates angst. Yet scanxiety — by prompting us to stew about the future — eclipses the present. Even when no pending test looms on the horizon, the misuse of time and spirit depresses those of us who suffer from the condition patients call cancerchondria.

Like hypochondriacs, cancerchondriacs imagine every cough, twinge, bump or rash as a malignancy stealthily creeping back. Since cancer can recur with or without producing obvious symptoms, we may fritter away a remission of months in obsessive brooding. The dread of relapse hisses, snorts, whimpers, roars, drowning out all else. Checking our bodies for indications of disease, searching the internet for the causes of possible warning signs, we lay waste our powers. Healthy people can also suffer from cancerchondria, sometimes because a specific type of the disease is said to “run” in their family.

During my week of waiting, I had no choice but to cultivate a skill that seasoned cancer patients practice assiduously: The fine art of trying not to fret or fuss. Here are the techniques I used, though I am always on the lookout for more.

It helps to fixate on urgent problems about which something should and can be done. In a lucky break, a book manuscript of mine had just been copy-edited. There were zillions of nitpicky queries about style and grammar that had to be answered immediately. Work of any kind inevitably offers exasperating diversions.

Read on: Tackling Cancer Anxiety

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