A man nervously chewing his nails as he looks at a PET scan machine

Canxiety and Schrodinger's CATscan

Last updated: October 2022

Anxiety. It comes hand-in-hand with a cancer diagnosis and is so thoroughly entwined with the disease that it should probably be called cancerxiety. Anxieter? No wait… I got it. Canxiety.

Yup, that’s the one. (TM, patent pending). The mental game is depressing, confidence-shaking, and always seems to crop up when you least need it in your life – in other words it’s the in-laws of having cancer.

The anxiety that comes with cancer

Worry, fear, depression – whatever name you personally chose to put to it, it’s all just forms of anxiety that come with a cancer diagnosis. I used to call those awful thoughts that creeped up at 3am when I had chemosomnia the “mind demons,” but then again, I got blood cancer right around when Stranger Things became really popular, so that may or may not be related.

I digress – the point is that anyone who says they breezed through cancer without any emotional or mental issues at all is either lying or they are…  also lying.

That’s it.

There isn’t a person on this Earth who can be told they have cancer and not instantly feel God’s leg come down from the heavens and kick them right square in the family jewels. Of the mind, I mean. The family jewels of the mind. The mind-balls. How do you like that mental picture? Man, this article is taking a weird turn.

Anyway, the point is, cancer goes hand in hand with anxiety. Period.

There are so many reasons to be anxious when you have cancer I don’t even know where to start.

Scanxiety

The first one that jumps to mind is scanxiety. This is a universal fear that many cancer patients have of PET scans and the accompanying blood tests because pretty much your entire life revolves around the outcome of those measurements. If things are going in the right direction, great, you get to watch another season of that Netflix show you love, but if they are going in the wrong direction… well… let’s just say I hope that last season didn’t end with a cliffhanger.

The paradox of waiting for scan results

Scans take a few days to a week to come back and during that time, anxiety is so high that you are basically a terrified chihuahua with insomnia. It's nerve-racking, wondering what that PET scan is going to show - is your body is going to light up bright like a Christmas tree (bad) or shine dimly like a trendy posh restaurant (good)?

Obviously, you want the second one – bad for determining exactly what that green stuff is on your plate but good for cancer hotspots in your body, but until you get that call or email all outcomes are possible.

Schrodinger’s CATscan I call it. (Yes, I know it’s not a CAT scan but the pun was just too delicious to ignore).

Beyond scanxiety, there’s also just the regular, run of the mill, hit you out of nowhere “am I going to die” anxiety that comes and goes like the wanderlust of a late-60s hippie painter.

You can be sitting in your chair, enjoying whatever cardboard food you’ve doused with hot sauce (because chemo hates tastebuds), and suddenly something will flash on the TV and BAM! Your brain suddenly starts to wonder if you’re really going to survive this disease or if everyone is just lying to you. It’s irrational but that’s what anxiety is – a fear you somehow know is unwarranted but still your brain says, “nahh, I’m gonna feel it, too bad – just try and sleep now!”

The fear that the cancer will never go away

One other main type of anxiety cancer produces is what I call “you’ll never be free of me muahahaha” anxiety. (I know it’s long; we’re workshopping the name.)

This is the anxiety that comes with cancer and never, ever, evereverevereverever goes away. Yes, that’s a thing.

You see, when you have cancer they never say that you are 100% cured. They never say you aren’t going to have it again, are done, fineto, end of story for all of history and time.

The dreaded recurrence

No. They give you the dreaded “odds.” So instead of saying you’re cured forever, they will tell you there’s a less than five percent chance of recurrence, but as anyone who’s seen Dumb and Dumber will tell you, what you brain hears is…  “so… you’re saying there’s a chance?”

It’s silly and irrational, but it’s also exactly what happened to me and almost everyone else I know who is in “remission.” You always live with the anxiety that the cancer will someday come back, and probably at a time in your life when you are much less equipped to fight it off.

That cancer Sword of Damocles is always hanging over your head and even years after the end of chemo your brain will focus on that fear every now and again and you’ll get that shot of existential dread right in the arm.

Before you know it, you are googling “how to write a will” so that you can be sure your vinyl collection will definitely be saved and your browser history definitely won’t.

Cancer and anxiety – it’s the peanut butter and jelly of the medical world and I didn’t even talk about all the individual boutique personal anxieties people experience on a daily basis. You literally can’t spell the word cancer without anxiety. I mean, you can but you know what I mean.

There’s just no way to separate the two so we do the best we can, every day, for the rest of our lives. Talk soon.

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