How to empower yourself to cope with the stress of medical testsMar 07, 2023
In living with chronic illness, medical tests become part of your life.
You may be searching for a diagnosis. Experiencing new symptoms and seeking answers. Or routine tests to monitor activity or progression.
In every situation, the process of medical tests is stressful – from having the actual test, waiting for results, receiving the results, and the subsequent impact on your life.
Here are some of my experiences, which you may relate to. I’m sure you have many memories of your own. The good news is that you can empower yourself every step of the way.
1.0 Having a medical test… Is stressful!
Physical pain and discomfort from some medical tests can add to your stress. It can also trigger memories of negative experiences you’ve previously had.
Here are some examples I’ve experienced that you may relate to.
Blood tests can be painful. Your veins start to hide; you become anxious about whether it will take one or five attempts. Then a biopsy of the tumour in my breast and the lumbar puncture as part of my MS diagnosis were experiences I got through okay, but I’m not lining up for seconds.
Then there are the scans, the uncomfortable reality that the radiologist is looking at images that will dictate your future, yet they are stone-faced and give nothing away. I’ve had countless MRIs on the brain and spine, and now boobs—a noisy and claustrophobic experience. And now, a new world of nuclear medicine and PETs scans to add to my regime.
Remember, you can have an impact on your experience of having tests.
1.1 Empower yourself whilst having the medical test
Discover relaxation techniques that help you get through these stressful moments. It may be deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.
This will help you to work through the pain. I suffer from spasticity in my body (thanks, MS!). Putting my hands above my head for a PET scan for 25 minutes can become excruciating, but I shut my eyes and breathe through the pain. It still hurts but is manageable.
Or when in an MRI tube for an hour, in the beginning, I start to feel panicked and claustrophobic. But I ask for relaxation music and divert my attention. Nowadays, despite the noise, I drift asleep.
2.0 Waiting for medical test results… Is stressful!
Once you get through the stress of an actual test, then comes the painstaking wait for results. The uncertainty can create anxiety and worry—not knowing what the results may show, unsure about your prognosis or the impact on your life. You can feel out of control, as your life will be determined by the results you await.
Last year I had never experienced such fear and anxiety over four days. The surgeon called to cancel my mastectomy. There was no point in it going ahead. The cancer had already spread to my sternum and liver; it was now metastasised. I was now dealing with Stage 4 breast cancer. The challenge was getting through the weekend before seeing the oncologist.
Fortunately, I could draw on the mindset insights from living with MS.
2.1 Empower yourself as you wait
As you wait for test results, use this time to inform yourself about the medical world you are now part of. This doesn’t mean hours consulting Dr Google. I avoided those searches because the Stage 4 breast cancer survival rate statistics are terrifying. Instead, research using trusted sites so you can ask informed questions during your appointment. Breast Cancer Network Australia was my go-to.
Turn your attention to self-care. This may include exercising and getting out into the fresh air. Practising mindfulness, being present in the moment and stopping your mind from racing ahead. And perhaps the trickiest of all. Try to get some sleep. This will be easier if you apply the relaxation techniques you use when having medical tests.
You can also divert your attention by keeping busy. Work may be a good distraction. For me, Netflix was the winner over those four days; lucky there were lots of Ozark episodes to binge-watch.
3.0 Receiving the test results… Is stressful!
The day has arrived. You are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. The stress is ever present, your heart racing and stomach churning. The fear of a serious diagnosis is real. Or perhaps you are scared the results will show disease progression. You know that what the doctor says in the next few minutes could impact every aspect of your life now and into the future. The prognosis but also the treatment plan. No denying it, hearing the results of tests creates anxiety and fear.
While waiting for the oncologist, I felt physically ill. I was always nervously waiting to go in for exams at university, but this time my life was on the line. And the stress wasn’t good for my MS; when my name was called, my legs were non-responsive. Walking into the room was too much for them; lucky I had my walking stick and Andrew (my partner).
3.1 Empower yourself during the doctor’s appointment for your results
As you sit down in the doctor’s room, remember to breathe. It will help to calm the nerves and clear your mind. Also, try and connect with the doctor; this will help to remind them you are not a disease sitting on a chair. Being personable will also help you to relax.
Then be actively involved during the appointment. Bring questions and ask for clarification if you don’t understand what is being said. But also actively listen to what the doctor is saying. Each time your mind races ahead, refocus on the present.
Bringing a support person is also a great idea. Not only will they absorb parts of the conversation you may have missed, but they can also ask questions you’ve forgotten to mention. Plus, having someone to debrief with on the way home definitely helps.
In living with chronic illness, medical tests become a regular part of your life. The constant cycle of having a medical test, waiting for results, and then sitting in your doctor’s room to receive the results.
The good news is that you can positively impact the experience every step of the way. It really is about going back to the basics and using self-care techniques that have helped you before.
Refer to this blog anytime you feel stressed by medical tests and empower yourself throughout the process.