"Some women are lost in the fire. Some women are built from it."
—Michelle K.
The Fire Within Blog
Scanxiety: My Fear of Cancer Recurrence

Several months back For Grace’s conference planning committee invited our webcaster, Rich, to join the call to talk logistics about our upcoming virtual “Pain-Cancer Connection” event. Rich is a long-time cancer survivor who’s dealt with decades of chronic pain as a result of his aggressive treatment.

It soothed me to talk with him because I was in the midst of brutal chemotherapy. I could relate when Rich shared his nightmare of getting one infusion too many and lying on the floor weeping after losing much of this tongue. I understood his bungie jumping off a Las Vegas building after his treatment in the quest to find something scarier than chemo. But that ease turned to discomfort when Rich warned me, “Oh Cynthia, you don’t know yet. There’s so much anxiety that comes with cancer.”

While I’ve long been aware that if triple-negative breast cancer returns, it tends to do so more aggressively in the first year or two, Rich was my introduction to “scanxiety.” We cancer survivors live in often paralyzing fear of a recurrence, one that will likely end us. In fact, I was recently stunned to hear a breast cancer survivor speak publicly of her relief when the cancer returned. She preferred to battle the disease again rather than the anxiety.

Now after sweating bullets through my first post-remission imaging, I can’t help but wonder how much scanxiety is reinforced by our broken healthcare system’s reliance on an endless stream of patients whose wellness would pose a threat to their business model.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the cancer industry thrives on a culture of fear, intentional or not. I’m certain that’s why patients gratefully say “yes” to every treatment offered without blinking. And that’s why I was looked at like I had two heads when I questioned every proposed therapy, relied on my own research, did everything integratively and said “no” to most of my provider’s drugs, scans and (over-) treatments.

Sadly, my scanxiety began the moment I attained remission. My oncology surgeon – who’s still terrified because I didn’t go with her standard-of-care surgery even though studies support that as a complete responder I had a better chance at surviving without it – told me to do twice weekly breast exams. She then attempted to comfort me by assuring we’d do surgery after the cancer grew back. Those hyper-vigilant exams made me so tender my coordinating nurse told me to back off.

As my initial every-three-month imaging neared, scanxiety reared its ugly head and seriously messed with my health. I stopped sleeping restoratively and was plagued by nightmares. Obsessing on the worse outcome, I started getting severe headaches while my IBS went through the roof. My terror went into hyper-drive when I found an inflamed lymph node in my neck, the same side as my former tumor. This fright didn’t just infect the patient.  John developed body-wide hives that looked like eczema on steroids, and my close girlfriends felt like they were having nervous breakdowns.

After my breast scan was clean, I rejoiced with John about how we deliberately made all the right choices. My surgeon broke up the party when she entered the examining room voicing her concern about my neck lymph node. Due to its location being a few inches higher than my breast area and healthcare being its dysfunctional self (every department can only scan a small area of the body), I had to wait another WEEK to find out if the cancer had metastasized.

During that soul-rattling scan the imaging technician said the node was abnormal and that I’d hear from my doctor soon. While John wheeled me to the car, I lost my shit and began screaming in the parking garage. I knew “abnormal” meant I was going to die and that six grueling months of chemotherapy hadn’t helped me in the least. How could I have been so wrong?!

I continued screaming in the car until my screamer gave out, while my stomach knotted and head throbbed. Mercifully, my doctor’s call late the next day told me all was clear. That both relieved and angered me; relief because I was assured another three months on the planet, but deeply pissed off because this healthcare-induced trauma was majorly messing with my cancer-fighting terrain. I make it my priority to practice healthy life-style choices to keep my body and mind well and in harmony.

But the body keeps the score. After that last scan, I got a chemo-induced bladder infection from hell, one that’s still knocking me out despite a week on Cipro. With this infection that appears to be moving into my kidneys, multiple chemo side effects have re-roosted; fatigue, heavy heart throbbing, tinnitus and labored breathing. I find myself in the midst of my most recent outcome of fear-based medicine, and I remain snared in their illness-inducing, money making system.

Deeper reflection leads me to believe that even my “innocuous” port flushes are part of this web of toxic medicine. Every seven weeks (though they push for four), I visit the infusion center where the nurses honestly seem put off, even hostile, that I’m doing well, smiling and in good spirits.

Apparently my role is to be fearful, inferior and vulnerable, and my upbeat, empowered demeanor rattles them. Rather than celebrating winning my life back or chiming in about simple pleasures like fashion and hair color, they drill me about how my post-treatment is going (what post-treatment?!) and what horrors my next scan might bring. My medical oncologist there is so buried in the fear culture, I schedule my appointments to avoid him.


Thankfully, I saw my saint of an integrative doctor last week who set me straight. Dr. Taw was visibly disturbed when I shared my run-ins with these healthcare providers, and was concerned that their behavior might stir things up and create cancer sparking “stagnation” in my body. Several times, he gave me his full support to stay away from these toxic people as much as possible to hold wellness. I couldn’t agree more.

Still, I am wary of my next scan. Despite every logical indicator telling me I’ll likely be A-ok, these people and their diet of fear embed me with dread. I see more than ever that this doesn’t just apply to my last year plus of cancer care; it also applies to my 38-year wrangling with high-impact pain. These western medicine devotees, while they claim to be healers, are the polar opposite for me. And their negative energy creates illness, rather than mitigating it.

Let’s not have to take a bungie jump off a building to overcome our latest medically-induced trauma. I implore you to stay away from these healthcare providers and their dysfunctional, money-based system as much as possible. To be fair, they do some good – but by a long measure, they hurt us beyond repair, again and again.  And again.

Please seek out integrative healing that is non-invasive and wellness (rather than fear) based. Your body and mind will thank you.