Scanxiety, trauma, and the power of medical images

Scanxiety, trauma, and the power of medical images

I’ve already started thinking about May when I have my next set of tests. I’m currently on the six month plan, hoping to graduate to the yearly one. Like most of the others in my support group, I struggle to control the anxiety.

We were talking the other day about how miserable it is to live on the roller coaster of scanxiety. Anxiety ratchets up as the days get closer and becomes almost intolerable until the results come in. You exhale, but before long, you see another sharp turn coming.

As we talked, our group leader reminded us that scans are stressful in part because they are scenes of trauma for many of us. Many of us discovered we had cancer because of a CT scan or Ultrasound or Xray.

Layered over the challenge of having cancer, enduring treatments and then recovering from side effects is the injury of the initial diagnosis. “You have cancer,” is a sentence that lingers in our minds and may replay over and over.

Everything about that moment is stained with the trauma. Sometimes it can feel as if the scan caused the cancer.

It really helps me to think of a CT scan and other tests as triggers for remembering that traumatic event, because I know that I can release their power. I used to avoid driving down Kedzie, past South Suburban Hospital because I’d feel panicked. This was the hospital where I drove myself to the ER, where I spent days being tested, where I found out alone, with my family out of reach, that I had cancer.

But that hospital doesn’t set off alarms and anxiety anymore because I have to drive by it twice a week to go to physical therapy for my knee. It is, now, a familiar place along the way to another destination. It’s been de-sensitized for me.

The truth is, scans and scopes, tests and exams are good things. They aren’t the enemy at all. In fact, they can save our lives.

A few weeks ago, the Cancer Support Center hosted a session for their Journey Through Cancer series called “Imaging: A Peek Behind the Curtain.” It was a chance to learn about the technology behind medical images in a presentation by medical physicist Samuel G. Armato, PhD and radiologist Christopher Strauss, MD.

I’m convinced that the more we demystify medicine the less traumatic it will be for us. The peek behind the curtain was, for me, the first time I’ve ever actually met a radiologist. I’ve had more than one as a physician, but I’ve never seen them or spoken to them.

I was struck, mostly, by Dr. Strauss’s passion. Somehow I imagined a radiologist to be an introverted geek, unused to being in the light of day, much less speaking to human beings. Strauss couldn’t have been more personable or articulate.

As he and Armato moved through their presentation, the beauty of the medical images captivated me. The elegance of the technology and its power to see inside of our bodies struck awe.

Strauss showed one slide of a box full of objects from his office that he puts into a CT to help medical students learn to interpret the images. Armada showed a slide of the dozens of “slices” of images that specialists have to examine in order to “see” our organs. He showed us the beautiful glowing lights of the PET scan.

As I watched and listened, I felt myself growing curious about the technology and becoming more respectful of it and of the people who design and calibrate it.

When May gets closer, my goal for the six month checkup is to approach it with gratitude. Because of the technology available, my doc can offer me pretty good odds that should cancer be discovered, it will be early enough to treat. More likely he will be able to offer me peace of mind and a clean bill of health.

I don’t know if I can transform scanxiety into an experience of curiosity and respect or if I can desensitize myself from the trauma it tends to trigger. But, I do have a new way of thinking about it.

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