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Coping with Tests

Posted 12/9/2014

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  It is only Tuesday, and I have already talked with at least six people this week who are feeling very anxious about scheduled tests. One woman is having her first mammogram since last year's discovered breast cancer; another is having a bone scan because of shoulder pain that has persisted for several months. The others are people who are being actively treated for cancer and must have scans every few months to assess the situation. Even if scans have been stable for months, it is very anxiety-producing to anticipate them, go through the procedure (although that is usually the least of it) and then wait to hear the results. And, we all know, of course, that stable is good in this world, but that, sooner or later, Stage IV cancer will begin to grow--and everyone worries that this scan will be the one that brings that news.

  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 may be psychological torture. Coping with tests may not get easier with time and many people are anxious both prior to and after the appointment. There are a lot of tips about dealing with needles, MRI machines, CT scans, etc. Talk to other patients, ask your nurse for suggestions, and ask the techs what other patients have found helpful. The claustrophobic nature of MRI machines is the most common challenge, and may be eased by wearing an eye mask, asking the technician to keep talking, having someone stay with you and keep a hand on your head or feet, or using “prism glasses” that enable you to see out. Remember the immense value of anti-anxiety medications for these moments. As long as you are not driving, it is probably fine to take a small dose of something like ativan. Ask your doctor.

However hard the test itself may be, it will be concluded, and you then enter the period of anxiously awaiting news. The single most important piece of advice is to discuss this with your doctor before the test. You need to know how you will be informed, and you need to make this plan prior to the test day. Is it best to wait until your scheduled appointment, perhaps a week or more distant, and know that you will hear nothing in the interim? Would you prefer that your doctor call you with results, whether they are 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 other specific family member? May she leave a message on your machine? (This one is tricky. If you don’t want to hear bad news on your voice mail, tell her not to leave the results, good or bad, but to say they are ready and to call her back. Then remind yourself that the instructions were not to leave any kind of news.) If your doctor is unable to call you, is it okay if a covering 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 words are “Stay busy and distracted.” Set up time to be with friends, watch movies, exercise daily, and schedule 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. Remember, too, that “It is what it is” and all the worry in the world won’t change a thing.


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