Easing Stress When Waiting for Test Results

  • Whether you’re living with cancer or looking at a possible diagnosis, standing by for test results can be overwhelming and stressful. But there are ways to cope.

    “Waiting is not the problem, worry is,” said Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “Worry is trying to predict a future that no one knows.  The way you let go of worry is to coach yourself: deliberately let that worry go and do something else that calms you.”

    Preparing for tests—and anxiety

    When you’re getting ready for a test, have a frank conversation with your care team. Discuss the expected timeline for results and how you’d like to receive information

    Let your care team know what works best for you. It’s a small bit of control that can help take the edge off a stressful situation.

    “Worry is trying to predict a future that no one knows," said Dr. Finestone. "The way you let go of worry is to coach yourself: deliberately let that worry go and do something else that calms you.”
    Why results can take a while

    A team of experts prepares and interprets pathology tests. Pathologists and lab techs all work together to provide accurate, thorough results.

    However, some results can take longer than others. Certain tissues take longer to process, special stains or other tests might be needed, and sometimes, the team needs a larger sample. None of these processing delays necessarily mean bad news, no matter what your imagination might say.

    Effective coping mechanisms

    “All the worry in the world isn’t going to change test results, and it doesn’t make anyone feel good, so focus on the things that do make you feel good,” Finestone said.

    This can be easier said than done. But Finestone offers some concrete tips for making the best of your wait:

    Control your thoughts

    “There is a technique called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that involves letting anxious thoughts float by like leaves on a stream,” she said. “You acknowledge what’s making you anxious, then let it go by and shift your attention to something that’s enjoyable. That helps.”

    Reach out 

    You don’t have to wait alone. “Pull in the support of people around you, like family and friends,” Finestone said. “Say, ‘I’m waiting on test results, it’s kind of preoccupying—can you help me?’ That might be a friend taking you to the movies and providing a positive distraction.”

    Break up the time into blocks

    Break your wait into manageable chunks. “Another technique we use is mindfulness,” Finestone said. “It’s about focusing on one day at a time or, if you’re particularly stressed, an hour at a time or a minute at a time. You might tell yourself ‘I need to get through the next 10 minutes’ and when those 10 minutes are over you focus on the next 10 minutes. Then the wait doesn’t feel so overwhelming.”

    If you need multiple tests over a longer period of time, try checking your weekly appointment schedule every Monday morning in order to focus only on what’s happening in that week. “This helps contain worry because you’re not thinking about tests that are coming up in the future,” Finestone said.

    Make good use of your nervous energy

    Direct that energy toward something productive. “Clean out a closet or walk the dog,” Finestone said.

    Hang out with kids or pets

    Being in the moment can help you take your mind off the unknown. “The best guides for being in the moment are little children and pets,” Finestone said. “Whenever people have one or the other in their lives, I say gravitate towards them.”

    There is no doubt that waiting is difficult. But focus on the idea that worrying will not change your test results. And a life filled with less worry is not only healthier, but also more enjoyable.