Tears of fear

I scan over the document that she hands me, and immediately my eyes fixate on one word malignant. An uncontrollable wave of emotion hits me. Tears start streaming from my eyes. Just at that moment, the ultrasound tech opens the door to the waiting room and calls my name. She introduces herself but I totally miss her name. I cannot think about anything except that word–malignant.

“Please remove everything from the waist up and put on the gown with the opening in the front”. She then goes to step out of the room. I look around searching for a box of tissues, and cannot see them. I stop her from leaving asking for the tissues, as tears fall from my eyes and my nose starts to drip. I hate that nose dripping feeling that comes with tears.

I wipe the tears from my eyes, blow my nose, and take off my shirt and tank top. I put on the gown with the opening at the front, not bothering to tie it up so that the tie doesn’t get in the way of the exam. The tech left me a warm blanket. I lay on the exam bed and put the warm blanket over me. The warm blanket is such a nice touch, it feels like a hug.

The tech returns to the room, “I’m going to scan your left breast. Do you feel something?” I show here exactly where the lump is that I’m feeling. Lump, it is such a loaded word. Just like malignant. It doesn’t really describe what I feel. I feel an area of hardening inside my left breast near my underarm. It is only noticeable if you press it. I feel my breast and find the hard spot. I show the ultrasound tech and she takes a marker and marks my skin.

“Please roll onto your right side, I will place this foam cushion behind your back to make it more comfortable. Also, please lift your left arm above your head.” I do as I’m told. The cushion makes it easier for me to relax in the awkward position necessary for the exam. Tears are falling from my eyes again. I lose all sense of feeling. At some point she squirts the ultrasound gel on my skin but I don’t feel it. She starts the scan, and I watch the screen. The areas of white and black swirl on the screen. She stops occasionally to hit a button and take a still picture of what is on the screen. The entire exam takes less than two minutes.

“I’m going to show the images to my boss, the radiologist, and she will come in and possibly do more scans, and let you know what she sees”.

I am paralyzed with fear. Tears rolling down my eyes. I remember the words “the radiologist wants to see you”. Words from the day my world got turned upside down. The words I never want to hear again.

The radiologist, a lovely lady with long curly hair, walks into the room introducing herself. Again, I do not catch her name, tears pouring down my eyes. “The good new is, that I see nothing of concern on the scans. No signs of cancer, no signs of swollen lymph nodes. We will be happy to scan anytime if you notice any changes.” It was the changes that brought me here. I take a deep breath and let out another wave of tears, this time they are tears of relief rather than tears of fear.

I tell the radiologist “thank you for coming in and giving me good news. It is nice to have a radiologist tell you something good rather than only the bad stuff”.

Although there is very little use of the term within the academic literature, within the cancer blogosphere this phenomena is known as scanxiety–referring to the fear of scans after a cancer diagnosis. I do not recall when I first heard the term, but I immediately understood what it mean. The anxiety around getting scans and awaiting the results of scans. This is especially the case after a cancer diagnosis, when scans are often the only means of determine whether or not your cancer has returned or whether or not it has progressed (gotten worse).

I recall reading about scanxiety (sorry, try as I might I could not find a reliable source), that it was not so much about the fear of results, but rather the memories of past tests and past test results. I think my experience this last week is a demonstration of exactly that. I was pretty certain that what I was feeling was scar tissue; however, walking into the ultrasound room for my first breast scan since surgery back in December 2014, brought back a flood of memories, a flood of intense sadness, a flood of fear.

The story above is based on my week this last week. I wrote it in a different format – one that I’m playing with. It is part of my experimenting with a new voice when working on evocative authethnography for my PhD research

What did you think? Did the story communicate at least some of the emotions associated with scanxiety? Was it more effective that just describing it, which is pretty much what I did in the two paragraphs following the story. 

Feature image Public Domain available from Wikimedia Commons.

  • Becky


  • The story above was very effective. It evoked a lot of empathy, whereas in just reading the description below I found myself connecting to my own experiences more. If I just had read the description I would have walked away feeling as if I’ve also been there; that I’ve had that scanxiety and can connect to what you were experiencing. And while that is true, with the story I can tell just how qualitatively different our experiences have been.

    Evocative is a fantastic word to describe the story. It evoked emotion, connection, and understanding on a much deeper level than just the description did.

    I really enjoyed the combination of the story, and the reflexive description.

  • I think your descriptive piece is right on and so much more powerful because you know what you are talking about first hand. I think you have done an excellent job!

  • Not sure how to react any more. Even though I have chronic heart problems, COPD and now a run in with cancer, every appointment seems like a whole new incident. Today was a medication review with a new pharmacist and her asking me when I had started taking the anxiety medication triggered memories that directly contradicted her belief that doctors are the ones I rely on for care. In some ways it’s interesting to see the world from the standpoint of a believer in the medical system but it’s also silencing to hear stories of care that I’ve never experienced.
    For me, unreliable and inconsistent care is the reality that runs contrary to the unexamined beliefs of people I’m expected to trust. Capturing that disconnect without sounding like a flake is very difficult and not likely to be believed.
    Is it useful to write about how people feel isolated and abandoned by a system that believes itself beyond error?

  • I know this is coming, just had this very anxiety ridden experience while being measured for radiation, but knew I had to be still in the machine. I let the tears go later in the car. They say PTSD is a common symptom of cancer patients, I think that’s an agreeable diagnoses.

    • I had known that PTSD was an issues – and yet I had never experienced it to that extent until that particular scan. I went in for brain MRIs remarkably calm – falling asleep inside the machine without the aid of any medication – so I was surprised when I was hit with the flood of emotions during the ultrasound. I totally did not expect it. But alas, it has been a highly emotional week for me. I do hope your radiation goes smoothly. I did not experience radiation so I cannot even begin to imagine the stress behind it all.

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