Cancer Tests Coping With Stress
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Beating Test Stress

Coping with medical tests can be difficult, but there are ways to ease your fears.

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By Hester Hill Schnipper

Coping With Tests

Anxiety is a normal part of cancer testing, but here are some ways to lessen the stress

By Hester Hill Schnipper


One of the difficult parts of cancer treatment is the necessity for periodic tests and scans. The tests themselves may be unpleasant, and waiting for results can be psychological torture. Many people are anxious both prior to and after the appointment. Coping with this process may or may not get easier with time.

Fortunately, there are a lot of tricks for dealing with needles, MRI machines, CT scans, and other aspects of testing. Talk to other patients for tips, ask your nurse for suggestions, and quiz the technicians about techniques that other patients have found helpful. The claustrophobic nature of MRI machines is one of the most common challenges, and may be eased by wearing an eye mask, asking the technician to talk throughout the scan, having someone keep a hand on your head or feet, or using “prism glasses” that enable you to see outside the machine. Remember the immense value of anti-anxiety medications for getting through these tests. As long as you’re not driving, it’s probably fine to take a small dose of one of these drugs—ask your doctor.

Stress graphic

However hard the test itself may be, it will end, and you will then enter the period of anxiously awaiting news. Before your test day, discuss with your doctor how you want to obtain your results. Do you want to wait for the results until your scheduled appointment, perhaps a week or more away? Would you prefer that your doctor call you with results, whether good or bad, as soon as possible? If you want a phone call, can you be called at work or on your cell phone? May your doctor leave a message if you can’t be reached? May a message be left with your spouse or another family member? May the physician leave a message on your machine? (This one is tricky. If you don’t want to hear bad news on your voicemail, tell the doctor not to leave the results, good or bad, but to say they are ready and for you to call back. Then remind yourself that the instructions were to not leave any kind of news.) If your doctor is unable to call you, is it OK if another doctor or nurse makes the call, or would you rather wait for a familiar voice?

Once the plan is established, think about the wait. The key goal is to stay busy. Set up time to be with friends, watch movies, exercise daily, and enjoy at least one self-indulgent treat. If you know you won’t hear anything until you see your doctor, this could be a good time to get out of town for a few days. Warn your family and close friends in advance that you will need their loving support, invitations and understanding if you seem distracted or prickly. Remind yourself, over and over, that whatever the results may be, you are in trusted medical hands and there will be good advice for your care.

Try to remember, too, that “it is what it is,” and that all the worry in the world won’t change a thing.

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor and the chief of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She also manages an online breast cancer support group on the hospital’s website.