How not to freak out
January 5, 2018 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. I'm finally getting back to feeling somewhat normal. My mammogram is next week. I'm starting to freak out. I have this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that this year will be the same as last year. Concrete ideas to help get through the next week would be wonderful.

I do see a psychologist and this will be top of my list for Monday. I also see my psychiatrist on Wednesday if there's anything to ask her that would be helpful.
posted by kathrynm to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My wife is returning to work next week, after working about 4 of the last 15 months due to losing two jobs because her breast cancer treatment schedule was inconvenient for employers. If our journey was any indication, anxiousness at one year is pretty damn normal. It really just feels like she has been "back to normal" for the last couple of months, after being diagnosed in Sept. 2016, and having a comparatively easy treatment plan as these things go (no chemo). So I guess I'm saying hang in there, you may be on the precipice of really feeling normal again.
posted by COD at 10:35 AM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hello! I am a breast cancer survivor with a screening MRI scheduled for next Thursday and I am right there with you. I'm three years out and it's still horrible every time. This is completely and totally normal - there's even a cutesy term for it: scanxiety. My husband is generally not worried at all about me having a recurrence, but when he went with me to the last mammogram I looked over at him in the waiting room and he looked like he was going to throw up. I said, "SEE! This is what it's like inside my head all the time." I cried when the nurse told me it was negative and she gave me a big hug.

I try to focus on this idea: If they find cancer as a result of a mammogram or breast MRI, that means it's a local cancer in my breast. They are really really good at treating local cancer in the breast. It will suck a lot to go through treatment again, but the cancer found in those scans is treatable and curable. Right? Right. I read this New York Times piece a couple weeks ago with a quote that really resonated for me: "I wasn’t ready then, and yet, I got through it. I won’t be ready next time, but I have reason (and experience) to believe that I will get through it again."

Do you have any anti-anxiety meds? That can help. Also, distraction - watching a bunch of silly TV, exercising, playing music, whatever it takes to get you outside of your head. But mostly, we just have to power through. Everyone says it gets easier the farther you're out from diagnosis. I have found that to be true in a general sense, but I don't know if it will ever be true about getting those scans. Hugs! You'll get through it.
posted by something something at 10:35 AM on January 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

I just finished breast cancer treatment (single mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and now tamoxifen). I had my follow-up mammogram a couple of months ago and felt similarly anxious beforehand. I think it's very normal in this situation. I'd ask for some anti-anxiety meds if you think those will help. What helped me was doing breathing exercises and listening to videos for anxiety on YouTube—you'll have to find what works for you, but it's worth checking some of those out to see if they help you. Another thing that helped me was pampering myself with hot baths, face masks, etc. Hang in there. It's not easy, but it'll be a relief when it's over.
posted by smich at 11:08 AM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

This fall, it was six years since my cervical cancer diagnosis and (minor) surgery to cut out a teeny-tiny non-metastatic tumor; there's a dent in my cervix but I'm otherwise unscathed. Six years, and it was the first time that my annual end-of-October-through-November anxiety was...not as bad!

I do still get flutters of that dread in the pit of my stomach waiting for pap results twice a year. I've gotten better at keeping it from taking over. I picture it as a sort of lump of black fog, and I imagine that I can cup my hands around it. That seems like a size of a thing that I can carry around for awhile.
posted by desuetude at 12:15 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Scanxiety is a thing that's recognized in the cancer-related medical community. It's got cross-over with PTSD. You can look it up and see what coping suggestions are recommended. It's highly individual. Some people make themselves very busy in the time between scan and results (work, projects, socializing, volunteering). Some find comfort in planning for worst case scenario. Some people meditate and visualize both their desired results or the anxiety itself. Some people medicate with short-term anti-anxiety drugs. Some exercise or sleep more. Some trial and error will get you to a combo that works for you. Good luck!
posted by quince at 12:28 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I totally get scanxiety every time, and I'm 6 years post treatment. The first one was the worst because I had calcifications--common after lumpectomy but still requiring a 6 month follow up. Definitely take anti-anxiety meds, and also be prepared for a glorious feeling of relief. Make sure someone close to you knows you are going so you have someone to call afterwards.
posted by Morpeth at 3:13 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't really have any friends to turn to right now. I feel awkward asking my psychiatrist for any benzos. I will if that is the best thing. I mean, I guess I've been working with her long enough for me not to look like a crazy drug seeking lunatic.

There's the anxiety about just having the mammogram (which sounds like it's common) and then the waiting for that letter to come. I just keep imagining the worst scenario. Which, of course, is not helping things.

Today I binge watched Law & Order. And for a little while, I was distracted and wasn't thinking about *big thing* coming up next week.

Thank you for all your replies. Knowing that this is normal makes me feel a little more in control.
posted by kathrynm at 6:21 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I haven't had cancer, but I am very high risk for bc and have screening imaging done every 6 months. Good advice above, but also can you talk with the imaging center about getting your scan read while you are at the clinic or that day? Some centers will accommodate that request, depending on their workflow. I also have a nurse practitioner who manages my screening and she is always available to talk, to try to get images read more quickly, etc. I would inquire about having someone like that to manage your screening. Good luck. Memail me if you need a friend to talk to.
posted by sulaine at 6:30 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Could you talk to your doctor about getting the mammogram read immediately? I had to have a follow up screening this past fall, and the technician had me wait, that there was a doctor at the facility who interpreted the scans so patients wouldn't have to go through the stress if waiting (again) to get the letter. i got the results before I left the building. The wait was roughly 30 minutes, and I cried when she said I was ok.

This was a branch of the Cleveland Clinic, and it was a new protocol for patients getting follow up scans. I really appreciated the sensitivity to making this second round as easy on us as they could.
posted by LaBellaStella at 6:41 PM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, ask to speak with the doc who reads the scans before you leave. Mrs. W. does that and it cuts down on a lot of needless anxiety. Did the lumpectomy have clear margins and no lymph node involvement? Adjuvant rads on top of that are really damn effective. Hang in there.

Are you in touch, online or IRL, with other breast cancer patients? Shared experience is highly supportive.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:37 PM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I tell myself this, and it helps me get through the time between scan and appointment. I don't really know why it works, but it is often the only thought that calms me.

The scan just reveals truth that is already there. Nothing changes because of the scan except having more knowledge to move forward with.

It's hard, it's all hard, and basically no one who hasn't had cancer truly understands. I haven't found most friends particularly helpful/reassuring, but I have some bare acquaintances with diagnoses who always say the right things. Maybe a support group would help? I found them depressing but they probably vary a lot. Or we should make a MeFi support group. I would be completely up for that. People here are awesome.
posted by donnagirl at 7:59 AM on January 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My daughter, now eight, has had about 25 MRI scans since having brain cancer aged ~18 months. Scanxiety is indeed a real thing. Two things I learned: people will tell you it gets easier as time goes by, and you won't believe it, but it does. And second, donnagirl (comment above) is exactly right: the scan doesn't cause a problem. It reveals one earlier than you would otherwise know about. A negative scan is great news. A positive scan has this silver lining: you will get treatment faster and more effectively than otherwise.

By going through the scan you are being strong, proactive, and looking after yourself to the very best of your ability. The scan is your ally. This thinking has helped me through the years.
posted by Rumple at 9:46 AM on January 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

It's standard procedure at the Breast Health Center where I get my mammograms to read them immediately and take more pictures frequently if you've had BC. One thing to be aware of is that, at least in my experience, to get that special attention, your doctor will schedule you for a "diagnostic" mammogram rather than a "screening" mammogram. I'm telling you this so that you aren't tempted to worry over the title of the procedure. It doesn't mean you have BC, it means that you had BC so they'll be even more vigilant and even nicer to you.
posted by janey47 at 11:36 PM on January 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nthing to call and see if they can (or already plan to) read your mammo while you wait, since you've already had breast cancer. It's an enormous weight off of your shoulders to find out before you leave the building, it makes a huge difference anxiety-wise.
posted by desuetude at 12:05 PM on January 8, 2018

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