Going through medical tests such as this PET scan can put the anxieties of academic challenges in perspective. (Photo courtesy Meaghan Kilner)

Cancer and College: Life and Death Exams

Medical tests, midterms and a lesson in perspective.

(Photo courtesy Meaghan Kilner)

Do you know that feeling when you’re staring at a test question in front of you, and a sense of panic is growing inside as it sinks in that you don’t know how to answer? Your heart rate speeds up, your hands sweat and that strange buzzing noise fills your head. I find that the best way to combat this is to take a step back and remember that no one test will determine the rest of your life or whether you live or die. This is simple advice to remember in an academic setting. 

Unfortunately, that advice doesn’t work when it comes to cancer exams.

According to Urban Dictionary, scanxiety is the “anxiety and worry that accompanies the period of time before undergoing or receiving the results of a medical examination (such as an MRI or CT scan).” It’s a feeling I have become all too familiar with in the last four years of my journey with cancer even as the frequency of tests and the likelihood of my cancer relapsing have both decreased. Perhaps it is a phenomenon some of you have begun to experience this year, while you wait for the results of your COVID tests. While I wish that nobody had to experience that dreadful, heart-sinking feeling, I have been able to derive something unexpectedly amazing from my experiences with scanxiety: perspective.

As I prepared to start this semester, I found myself with a pit of dread in my stomach. With the transition of college academics hitting me like a ton of bricks, last semester was rough to say the least. In particular, I was dreading the onslaught of tests and exams heading my way, as well as the hours of studying and anxiety preceding each assessment. I was interrupted in my preemptive complaining about school by a horrifying realization: I had found a swollen lymph node.

For most people, a swollen lymph node is usually nothing to worry about. For a lymphoma survivor, however, it can be one of the first signs of cancer recurrence. I tried to stay calm and remind myself that it could be the result of any number of innocuous happenings in my body; but in my mind, I had quickly begun to lay out what my life would look like if it was a cancer relapse. If the lymph node didn’t go away in a couple of weeks, I would have to get a CT scan, then a biopsy and then the most anxiety inducing test of all: a PET scan, which shows the areas of the body with cancer lit up like a morbid light show.

I would have to start treatment again and probably get another bone marrow transplant. I would feel sick for a year at best, and I would face the impossible task of trying to keep up with my school work. I would have to defer, transfer or drop out altogether. Suddenly, a semester full of academic exams and stress didn’t seem so bad. Nevertheless, that experience did allow me to find perspective. Having been reminded that nothing I have is guaranteed, I find myself grateful for even having the opportunity to be alive and stressed out by school. The very act of studying for a degree is a reminder of a future I get to pursue through my hard work. When I start to panic on an exam, I can’t help but smile as I say to myself, “This is not a life and death situation.”

As college students struggling with mental health in stressful situations, we are often told to practice gratitude and find perspective. It can be frustrating at times, but this advice has helped me to stay grounded. Thankfully, the swollen lymph node receded, but its impression on my frame of mind remained. I will undoubtedly still become anxious and annoyed over coursework and midterms, but at my core, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to sit down to take a math exam instead of a PET scan.