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Tips for Managing PET and CT Scan Anxiety

Updated on June 07, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Todd Gersten, M.D.
Article written by
Shira Hornstein

PET and CT scans can be a major source of anxiety among MyLymphomaTeam members. Fear of disappointing tests results or cancer spread can cause stress during treatment. Studies have shown cancer patients experience significant levels of anxiety both before and after imaging scans for a variety of reasons, including fear of results and concern about side effects.

MyLymphomaTeam members frequently voice feelings of anxiety related to upcoming imaging scans and the difficulty of waiting for results. “I get my PET scan today. I know I won’t know anything today, but it’s still nerve-wracking,” one MyLymphomaTeam member shared. Another noted, “I’m having a CT scan tomorrow. I always get nervous before these.”

Hope for good results is also a common topic among members. One member said, “I just had my last chemo after six months of treatment. Going to have a PET scan next week to see if the cancer is gone. Please be gone.”

What Do CT and PET Scans Tell Doctors?

CT and PET scans are common tests used during lymphoma diagnosis and treatment. Both CT and PET scans can help doctors detect the location and size of tumors in the body.

A CT scan (also known as a computed tomography scan, computerized axial tomography scan, or CAT scan) provides doctors with cross-sectional images, or “slices,” of the body. This allows doctors to see bones, organs, and soft tissues with greater detail than a regular X-ray. A dye may also be injected into a vein or ingested to make specific tissues show up more clearly on the images.

CT scans are helpful for doctors looking for lymphoma throughout the body — in the abdomen, pelvis, chest, head, and neck.

A positron emission tomography (PET) scan uses a small amount of radioactivity injected into a vein, swallowed, or inhaled to locate tumor cells in the body. PET scans show where glucose, or sugar, is being used in the body. Cancer cells require high levels of sugar to live and grow. Therefore, areas of high glucose consumption show up brightly on the scans and indicate the presence of cancer cells.

The picture generated by a PET scan is less detailed than a CT scan or MRI, but it can provide doctors with important information about the location of cancer or metastasis in the body. PET scans are often used to determine if a lymph node contains cancerous cells or if a tumor is responding to treatment.

CT and PET scans are used to locate both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma for diagnostic and treatment purposes.

After your scan, a radiologist will interpret the images and speak with your doctor. This usually takes about a day. Then your doctor will contact you to share your results.

Waiting for results can be stressful. Members of MyLymphomaTeam frequently discuss the emotional toll. “Waiting on test results from my PET of last week,” one member said. “My anxiety is through the roof.”

Managing Anxiety Related to Scan Results

Anxiety is a common side effect of cancer treatment. Fears of worsening symptoms or further cancer spread can result in generalized anxiety for many patients. One study found that lymphoma survivors more commonly experienced anxiety (37 percent) than the general U.S. population (19.1 percent).

Although there is no evidence that stress or anxiety itself can worsen lymphoma, stress and anxiety can have other negative effects on the body. Stress can weaken your immune system, increase your risk of heart disease, and negatively affect your mental health. As a result, managing stress can improve your mental and physical state while undergoing cancer treatment.

There are many ways to manage cancer-related anxiety. These include both medical therapies and nonmedical lifestyle changes. Medical options include:

  • Therapy — Therapy can help patients learn to identify and manage feelings of anxiety. Therapists can also provide coping strategies to overcome overwhelming anxiety.
  • Medication — Sometimes medication may offer relief from anxiety symptoms. Medication is most effective when combined with therapy and should always be prescribed by your doctor.

Other lifestyle adjustments can help manage anxiety as well. Here are some things you can do to ease cancer-related anxiety:

  • Meditate — Practicing mindfulness or meditation can help you stay calm during difficult times. Meditation can also improve sleep, concentration, and memory.
  • Exercise — Exercise not only benefits your health, but also improves your mood and reduces stress. It is important to consult your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen and to choose exercises that are right for you.
  • Do Things You Enjoy — Keeping yourself busy with things you enjoy is a great way to reduce anxiety and distract yourself from your worries.
  • Eat a Balanced Diet — Eating healthy can boost your overall health and help manage anxiety.

There are other strategies that can help manage anxiety in general. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides these tips for coping with anxiety:

  • Take a Timeout — Taking time for yourself to do things you enjoy can help you relax and clear your mind. Practicing yoga, listening to music, and prioritizing self-care are good examples of ways to step back.
  • Limit Alcohol and Caffeine — These can aggravate anxiety.
  • Prioritize Sleep — The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. However, during periods of high stress and anxiety, it is important to note that your body may need more sleep than usual.
  • Practice Deep Breathing — Inhale and exhale slowly. This can help you relax.
  • Note Anxiety Triggers — Keeping track of what makes you anxious can help you manage and prevent anxiety. Writing these triggers in a journal is a good way to keep a record.
  • Accept That You Can’t Control Everything — This can help you get perspective on a particularly stressful situation.
  • Talk to Someone — It is important to communicate with family and friends. Sharing your anxious feelings may help when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Tips from MyLymphomaTeam Members for Managing “Scanxiety”

It can be difficult to manage feelings of anxiety, especially during your lymphoma treatment. Members of MyLymphomaTeam rely on different methods to provide relief. For some, seeing a therapist is helpful. One member said, “I started therapy on Thursday for my anxiety. We will see how it does. My therapist said she can’t take away what is going on as far as my journey, but she can try and help me cope.”

Meditation is also a popular method. As one member noted, “Positive meditation and prayer has me back on track.”

Other members praise the power of positivity. “The best way to live with the shadow of cancer is living behind and looking forwards. Be positive and smile,” said one member. Another member echoed this sentiment, “You got this. Be positive and pray.”

Have you experienced scan anxiety? How do you manage it? Share your thoughts and questions below or directly on MyLymphomaTeam.

All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.
Todd Gersten, M.D. is a hematologist-oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Wellington, Florida. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Shira Hornstein graduated from Dartmouth College in 2021 with degrees in government and biology. Learn more about her here.

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