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Scanxiety: Waiting for PET Scan Results

Written by Elena Schwolsky
Posted on June 16, 2023

During the years of my stormy and rebellious adolescence, I did whatever I could to hide from my mother’s sharp glances. If I let her make eye contact, I was sure she could see through me — uncovering emotions I kept under wraps, probing my deepest secrets.

Of course, you can’t hide from a PET scan — that’s the whole idea –– so now, 60 years later and diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer, I grudgingly submit to the gaze of this technological marvel every three months and anxiously await the results.

First, a radioactive sugar is injected into my vein, and then I wait, moving as little as possible, until it has traveled throughout my body. Next stop: the scan room, where I hoist myself up onto a hard table on wheels, waiting to be rolled in and out of the scanner — a large, doughnutlike tube open at both ends, which will scan my body from the top of my head to midthigh. Like my mother’s glance, the machine will probe for microscopic evidence — in this case, of cancer, in the form of areas that “light up” because they have “taken up” the radioactive sugars coursing through my bloodstream.

Thankfully, the machine is large, open, and silent, unlike the noisy claustrophobic MRIs at the start of this journey, almost a year ago. I close my eyes, feel the gentle roll of the table as it is guided through the scanner, and briefly doze. The whole process takes about 45 minutes.

It is afterward, when I try to sleep at night, that my anxious brain begins to spin out scenarios. “Scanxiety,” a friend from my cancer support group calls it — the waiting time between scan and results … the chasm into which all my fears and worries tumble.

Anything is possible: cancer free; small, manageable recurrence; big, complicated recurrence.

I imagine my cells silently, invisibly multiplying, leaving home organs in search of greener pastures, disrupting my body from within with very few signs. That’s what happened the first time. I had only the mildest of symptoms; then felt an odd, tender lump in my pelvic region, just under the skin; and then woke from major surgery with a zippered scar bisecting my belly and a plastic pouch collecting the waste emitted by an unexpected ileostomy.

Who’s to say it isn’t happening again? The PET scan, that’s who — but I must wait. Scanxiety.

Like a magnet, worst-case scenarios pull me in until I become convinced that I am facing a major recurrence and will have to go through surgery and chemo all over again. With this type of cancer, there is a 70 percent chance of recurrence within the first 18 months after treatment.

I try to hold on to optimism, but it is fleeting. By the time a few days have gone by with no results, I have twisted myself into tangled knots, though I put on a brave face.

Finally, in my oncologist’s office for the post-scan visit, I ask the nurse, “Are my PET scan results in yet?”

“Yes,” she replies, not looking up from the computer. “The doctor will be in shortly to discuss them with you.”

I read into every movement of her body. Why didn’t she look at me? Is the news that bad? And I wait for the click of my young doctor’s heels on the hard linoleum floor. She breezes in. I notice a new haircut, cool glasses. She’s been on vacation.

She sits, looks at me, and places a hand over mine. I wait — it’s only a second or two but feels like a century. I stop breathing.

“Your scan looks good,” she says, but my mind can’t absorb her words, can’t climb up out of the chasm just yet. “No signs of cancer, but there is one very small area on your abdominal wall that lit up. Too small to know what it is, but we’ll monitor with another scan in three months.”

After, in the Lyft heading home over the bumpy streets of my neighborhood, my mind lingers on that small area, the lit-up spot. It is hours before my scanxiety finally melts into relief, before my tightened muscles relax, before I breathe easily and sleep.

I’m back on the roller coaster. I’ve survived the steep climb and terrifying plunge, and now I’m back on the straightaway, moving steadily toward the next hurdle, coasting a bit. I let my hand relax on the steel bar that holds me in, let my head sink back into the cushioned seat, and relax just enough to laugh a bit, to visit with family, to be drawn into the world of a good novel, to imagine a healthy future.

What else can I do?

MyOvarianCancerTeam members discuss ovarian cancer from a specific point of view. Members’ articles don’t reflect the opinions of MyOvarianCancerTeam staff, medical experts, partners, advertisers, or sponsors. MyOvarianCancerTeam content isn’t intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Posted on June 16, 2023
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Elena Schwolsky was diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer in August 2021. Learn more about her here.

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