The Triggering Effect of Cancer Scans

The process of scheduling and receiving scans to monitor your disease can be emotionally triggering and traumatic as a patient with cancer, one woman explains.

I mentioned to my boyfriend Josh that I’m having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) about my upcoming scans. He disagreed and said I can’t be having PTSD, since that would be something that happens after the scan. He said what I am experiencing would be considered anxiety. Really, I think I am having a bit of both: PTSD from the triggering effect of past scans coupled with the anxiety about having a scan next week. Talk about a double whammy. Call it what you want. It’s real and all-consuming. The what-ifs pepper my days leading up to the scan and then continue until I hear the results.

The last time I had a scan was almost a year ago. It was a CT scan with oral contrast. My insurance will no longer approve a PET scan unless something questionable shows up on the CT scan first. I remember sitting in the waiting room with my mask on and being given a full cup of a nasty liquid to drink that had been poorly disguised with a fake mystery fruit flavoring. As self-conscious as I was about pulling my mask from my face and exposing myself to germs, I managed to gulp it down while sitting in the corner as far from the other patients as I could get.

By the time they called me back for my scan, my stomach was already protesting. It was churning and gurgling, and I needed the bathroom in a bad way. After a trip to the bathroom, to my dismay, another cup of this “Kool-Aid” was waiting for me before the scan was to take place. Yuck! Trying to put aside my rumbling tummy, I was able to down that cup and stay still enough to complete the scan. I had driven myself that day which meant I had to drive myself home as well. With the trash bucket I keep in the car nearby, I cautiously drove home. The raging headache started shortly thereafter. I didn’t feel right for a full day and a half after that experience. Even through all my chemo I was never sick like I was that last scan. “Never again,” I told myself.

A few months ago, when it was time for yet another scan, I requested, demanded, or advocated, (whichever word you prefer) to not be given the oral contrast again. I was assured by everyone that oral contrast was not in the orders for the scan. On a whim, I decided to call the imaging center myself just to make sure, and the person I spoke with on the phone said they would be giving me oral contrast. I cancelled the appointment during that phone call and skipped the scan. With my blood work being stable, my oncologist was agreeable to postponing the scan for a few more months.

So here we are a few months later and scan day is looming once again. I’m already dreading the process: the anticipation, the scan itself and waiting for the results. I experience worry every time the phone rings knowing if my current treatment fails it’s back to IV chemo, as I’ve used up all of my oral options. I fear losing my hair again. With every twinge or ache the fear of progression creeps into my thoughts.

The day of reckoning is here, a year to the day of my last scan. With my IV hooked up to my port, I entered the scan room and was greeted by a large cup of what I was told was water. This just upped my anxiety to another level. I gave it a good sniff before guzzling it down and being put into position for my scan. One thing I will never get used to is the warm sensation, almost as if you have wet yourself, as the contrast is speeding through my veins. Luckily, the CT scan is one of the quicker scans and the sensation doesn’t linger.

Now as I wait for results my mantra is “no news is good news” as I try to remember to breathe. And then the phone rings. It’s the oncology office. My heart starts racing only to answer the phone to hear a recorded message regarding COVID-19 symptoms and my upcoming appointment. Just breathe. A message popped up in the MyChart app today – another moment of panic. My scans looked good, and my pulmonary nodules are continuing to decrease in size. I can breathe a little easier until next time knowing with this scan, I have good news.

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