What To Do if You Have a Cancer Scare

In most cases, a cancer scare is nothing to worry about, but it can be hard to stay calm when it's happening to you.

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A strange mole that needs to be biopsied, a repeat mammogram, an abnormal Pap smear. Cancer scares can happen to any of us. "This happens every day in doctors' offices all across America," said Richard Wender, MD, chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society.

But it can be hard to stay calm when it's actually happening to you. Here are five things to keep in mind:

Take a Step Back

Abnormal cancer screening results happen. "The most common resolution of that abnormal test is finding that you don't have cancer," said Dr. Wender. In fact, a March 2022 UC Davis study published in JAMA Network Open found that half of all women will experience at least one false-positive mammogram over a decade of annual breast cancer screenings.

Remember, the reason these tests have such high cancer-detection rates is that they screen women for any small thing—like calcifications, or tiny deposits of calcium in your breast tissue, that could potentially indicate cancer according to the National Library of Medicine.

Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines: As of May 2023, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that cisgender women and people assigned female at birth get mammograms every two years beginning at age 40. This is 10 years earlier than the current guidelines. More research is needed on whether people with dense breasts should have additional screenings as well as the potential benefits and risks of screening people older than 75.

Listen to Your Healthcare Provider

"Sometimes, when I explain a screening test result to a patient, I can sense that she's so anxious she's not processing what I'm saying," said Dr. Wender. A July 2017 study published in Patient Education and Counseling noted that only 20-60% of information provided during oncology consultations is remembered by patients.

Don't rely on your memory, especially at an emotional time like this. Either jot down exactly what the healthcare provider says (and don't be afraid to have them repeat it) or make sure a friend or family member is either in the office with you or on the phone when you speak to your healthcare provider.

Try Not To Stress About Additional Waiting

If suspicious mammogram findings mean your healthcare provider recommends a biopsy, don't worry if it's several weeks away. "Waiting three weeks will not change the prognosis and outcome at all if it does turn out to be cancer," said Dr. Wender.

You also shouldn't necessarily be alarmed if your healthcare provider doesn't recommend more invasive testing—such as a colposcopy (a procedure in which a lighted, magnifying instrument called a colposcope is used to examine the cervix, vagina, and vulva according to the National Cancer Institute) or biopsy—and instead suggests simply returning for a follow-up screening in six months.

"Oftentimes a doctor or technician will see something that doesn't look like cancer, but they just want to double-check it in a few months to be safe," said Dr. Wender.

Don't Go Overboard on Dr. Google

Sometimes, Google can be reassuring: "If you type in 'abnormal pap smear' or 'abnormal mammogram' or even 'suspicious mole,' you'll see how common the false positive rate is," said Dr. Wender.

But other times, you'll just scare yourself unnecessarily. "I had a patient recently who had some tests come back suggestive of a very lethal form of uterine cancer," said Dr. Wender. "When I called her, I said, 'Don't research it on the Internet. Just don't do it.' She didn't—and six weeks later, when we learned after a surgical biopsy that the results were benign, she was tremendously relieved."

Ask Lots of Questions

If you've got fears, articulate them. "If you ask your doctor what the likelihood is that your test result indicates cancer, they may not have exact numbers but they should be able to respond to you in a general way, which is usually reassuring," said Dr. Wender.

And if they brush off your worries, or refuse to answer you, it may be time to seek out another healthcare provider—or at least get a second opinion.

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