For 'scanxiety,' take a deep breath

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Posted: March 12, 2013

Few things in life are as anxiety-provoking as the diagnostic tests cancer patients endure every few months.

A CT scan or an MRI can provide a reason to hope - or a death sentence. It's no wonder, then, that patients and their families feel "scanxiety" in the days leading up to tests, and again before getting results. Hearts race, palms sweat, and middle-of-the-night thoughts leap to worst-case scenarios.

It doesn't have to be that way, says Gabriel Rocco, a contemplative counselor and meditation instructor. People can learn to control their thoughts - and accept their emotions - so that scanxiety is less painful.

He'll be teaching cancer patients and families how to do this in a free class sponsored by the Cancer Support Community of Philadelphia.

A former hospice counselor with a master's degree in contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University in Colorado, Rocco started working with the support organization after his father died of pancreatic cancer.

Cancer is emotionally challenging because there are legitimate reasons to be afraid and because patients face such uncertain futures. Rocco says they don't have any control over that, but they do have control over how they react in the present.

People get into trouble when they let a momentary pang of fear or grief grow into a full-blown horror story. Though imagining a frightening future can make you feel awful, Rocco says he can help people use that same imagination to "cultivate a sense of peacefulness or tranquillity."

Most of us try to push or think away unpleasant emotions. Rocco says we should know that emotions are meant to be fleeting signals. The important thing is to let yourself feel them without spinning one of those scary stories.

You do that, Rocco says, by returning again and again to the kind of deep breathing that people use during yoga and meditation. Eventually, he says, the intense fight-or-flight chemicals that anxiety sends into your body will dissipate.

He says cancer patients and their families may, indeed, have some frightening facts to face. And, it might be useful to plan for a future they'd rather not think about. But, Rocco says, that's different from letting fear-fueled what-ifs run wild.

"One of the things that I'm trying to help people distinguish," he says, "is the difference between intentionally sitting down to plan what you need to do as opposed to getting caught in this inner dialogue and fantasy."


'Scanxiety' Class

What: Mind Body: Managing "Scanxiety."

When: Class is two sessions,

6 to 8 p.m., March 14 and 21.

Where: Contemplative Arts White Lotus Center in Bryn Mawr.

Registration: Class is free but registration is required by March 12. Call the Cancer Support Community at 215-879-7733.


Contact Stacey Burling at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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