Scanxiety: a very real experience

BCNA’s Helpline is staffed by experienced cancer nurses who provide support and information. While the Helpline can’t provide personalised medical advice, the team can talk you through concerns you may be experiencing and refer you to support services available. Here, the Helpline answers some common questions about breast cancer and its treatments.

“Scanxiety”: a very real experience

Scanxiety describes the sense of uncertainty and fear following a breast cancer diagnosis, specifically around tests, scans and the period spent waiting for results.

We receive a number of calls to the BCNA Helpline from members immediately after they receive the news of their breast cancer diagnosis as they try to make sense of what the diagnosis means and what they need to do next.

Some of the typical questions we receive via the Helpline on breast cancer tests and scans include:

Q: What tests will I need following treatment for early breast cancer?

After treatment for early breast cancer, you will need to have a period of monitoring, known as a follow up. The purpose of a follow up is to check if the breast cancer has come back, monitor for side effects of treatment as well as to see how you are feeling and healing more generally.

The chance of breast cancer coming back is different for each person and depends on a number of factors including the stage of cancer at diagnosis, genetic factors, type of treatment and time since treatment. We know from Cancer Council Australia statistics that cancer is most likely to recur in the first five years following treatment.

You can ask your specialist to discuss the risk of breast cancer recurrence in your case.

The recommended follow up will be different depending on your breast cancer treatment.

In general the follow-up involves a physical examination of your breast/breasts or chest wall, arm pit and arm on the breast cancer side, a mammogram and/or ultrasound, and questions about how you are feeling physically and emotionally. Mammograms and/or ultrasounds are usually done annually, with the first one a year after diagnosis.

Q: How often and for how long should I have follow-up appointments and tests?

The recommended timing for follow-up appointments, per Cancer Australia guidelines, is:

  • every 3–6 months for the first 1-2 years after treatment
  • every 6–12 months for years 3–5 after treatment
  • annual reviews following the 5 year mark after treatment ends

This schedule may vary depending on your treatment and recovery. Follow-up care may be shared between your breast surgeon and medical oncologist or one of your specialists and your GP.

Q: Why don’t I have more or different tests? How do I know if the tests ordered for me are enough?

Some people find follow-up tests and appointments give them reassurance that the breast cancer has been treated effectively. Conversely, some find their anxiety is heightened at this time and some might request additional tests to allay their fear.

Cancer Australia’s Influencing best practice in breast cancer statement notes that additional tests are only recommended if symptoms suggest that cancer has spread or a new breast cancer has developed.

If you do not have any symptoms, additional tests do not provide any benefit and cause you unnecessary harm and anxiety.

More intensive testing, involving chest X-rays, bone scans, CT or PET scans, or blood tests, does not improve survival or increase the quality of life of patients who do not have symptoms.

Click here to learn more about Cancer Australia’s 12 practices.

BCNA’s My Journey online tool has further information and suggestions for how to manage scanxiety.

If you need to talk and would like to speak to an experienced cancer nurse, please call the BCNA Helpline on 1800 500 258, Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm (AEST).


Issue 86
Autumn 2020