How some people cope with 'scanxiety'

It may be normal to feel nervous before cancer-detecting tests, but that doesn't mean you can't calm down a little.

Cancer experts say patients can relieve test anxiety with self-hypnosis, deep breathing, and relaxation exercises. Talking to friends and family relaxes some people, as do counseling and participation in support groups.

Patients should talk to their doctors about how long it will take to get test results and how they'd like to hear the news. It helps to make that part of the process predictable. Because some patients are afraid even when their odds of long-term survival or cure are good, a frank discussion about risks might help.

Changing the way they view their illness, particularly as cancer progresses, helps patients adjust. "We work with patients to come to accept that stability is the goal," said Lidia Schapira, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. "We help patients reframe what they hope for."

Kevin Stein, a clinical psychologist who directs quality-of-life research for the American Cancer Society, recommends a different type of "cognitive reframing." Instead of sitting in the waiting room thinking, "Has the cancer spread to my liver? What's going to happen to my family?," Stein suggests thinking, "I'll deal with it. I'm a strong person. I have a great family."

Patients say they learn to accept what they can't control. However, never underestimate the value of distraction.

Judy Bernstein, an Ambler woman who has been dealing with cancer since 2001, substitute-teaches in second grade, a job she loves. The work was just what she needed recently while she waited for some test results. "I didn't think of myself at all," she said. "It was wonderful."

Bernstein keeps busy. Her faith in her now-well-tested doctors at Fox Chase Cancer Center calms her. "They are going to get me through it, whatever it is," she said. "In fact, that has been the case many, many times."

Bunny Guerrieri, a breast-cancer patient who has studied mindfulness at the Wellness Community, has learned to admit she's afraid and to keep going, knowing her fear won't change what happens. "Regardless of what you inhabit and you hold onto," she said, "the outcomes are still going to be. . . . Let them be, and take care of it when you get there."

- Stacey Burling