Anxiety is an emotion well known and understood by those who’ve received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Those feelings can become highly elevated during the period of diagnosis, as treatment begins and even afterward as a person learns to navigate returning to normal life.
Anxiety occurs when a person faces a fearful situation. When a person feels anxious, there are physical manifestations such as rapid breathing, a racing heart, lightheadedness, dizziness, an inability to concentrate or other symptoms. Symptoms of anxiety vary in every circumstance, but the symptoms are real.
For the person with cancer, anxiety can become part of daily life. One of the signs of severe anxiety can result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Feelings of anxiety and nervousness before any medical appointment are normal, but for the person with cancer, feelings can become magnified— especially in cases where cancer-related PTSD is present.
Some people with cancer find themselves becoming anxious as they face diagnostic testing, such as with MRIs, PET Scans or other types of tests. The terminology used for that type of anxiety has been coined as “scanxiety”, but there is another type of fear that some face as they prepare for routine appointments. This fear is called appointment anxiety.
Appointment anxiety may often be misunderstood. Since routine checkups are merely to provide a plumb line for measuring how a patient tolerates treatment or whether cancer has returned, some may wonder why there could be feelings of anxiety. For those who have experienced this type of feeling, its effects can be debilitating. Appointment anxiety can rob a person of the ability to function normally and in extreme cases, impede the ability to fully recover.
Appointment anxiety affects my life in a negative way. Currently, I am on a six-month schedule for checkups with the oncologist. Looking at my calendar, I see a big red circle notating the date of my next appointment. Although this is supposed to be a routine visit, I’ve already begun to feel anxious. This will be the fifth year since I received a diagnosis of breast cancer.
When first diagnosed, my oncology team explained if cancer was going to return, I could expect a recurrence within the first five years post-diagnosis. That’s part of the reason I’m nervous. While I realize reaching that mark doesn’t guarantee recurrence, I’ve hoped making it to that five-year mark would make the chances of a recurrence in my life slim to none.
The routine of the oncology appointments should make me feel fairly comfortable— after all, I know exactly what the medical staff will do and how they will do it. I should be well past the point of becoming anxious, but that pre-appointment fear still puts butterflies in my stomach as the thoughts of “what if” tumble around in my head.
It’s scary not knowing what the bloodwork will show. In a best-case scenario, a diagnosis of No Evidence of Disease (N.E.D.) will be meted out, but there’s also the possibility I’ll be told the cancer has returned. It’s no wonder those of us facing routine exams after a cancer diagnosis find ourselves anxious!
But I’ve found some small ways to help myself work through the appointment anxiety. Perhaps some of these tips might offer consolation to others experiencing anxiety before their appointments, too.
An old African proverb says, “Smooth waters do not make skillful sailors.” Overcoming feelings of anxiety takes practice and patience. Navigating the waters of cancer are rarely smooth but using some of these helpful tips might help as you find yourself in rougher waters.
Appointment anxiety is challenging, but there are ways to overcome it. If the problem persists or becomes unmanageable, talk to your doctor. There may be medications that can help.