Being a proactive patient: three things you need to know about CT scans

Being a proactive patient: three things you need to know about CT scans
Image of a CT scanner is used with permission of a Creative Commons License. Photograph by frankieleon.

If you have cancer, you’ve almost certainly had a CT scan (sometimes called a cat scan). Despite the fact that a CT is how my cancer was diagnosed, I’ve always had a sense of wonder about them. When they put the contrast dye into my IV, they said, “You’ll feel warmth throughout your body.” And, I did, but I was unprepared for how quickly the warmth would spread. It seemed as if I could feel it racing through my veins, which in turn made me aware of a part of my body I hadn’t really thought about much.

Several weeks ago, the Cancer Support Center offered a lecture called “Imaging: A Peek Behind the Curtain,” a part of the Journey Through Cancer series. It offered a chance to learn about the technology behind medical images in a presentation by medical physicist Samuel G. Armato, PhD and radiologist Christopher Strauss, MD. (I wrote another post about the lecture here.)

I learned three things about CTs that I think every proactive patient should know.

  • Not all CT machines are the same. Maybe that’s obvious, but some are newer and better, some are well-maintained and not so well maintained. It’s very difficult for you as a patient to find out which machines are the best. My advice is always that you seek testing and treatment at a National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Center. In Illinois, those are the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Chicago Comprehensive Cancer Center. If you aren’t from Illinois, check here to find your local NCI-designated facilities.
  • Interpretation of the results is both art and science. Your body is unique, and the more the radiologist knows about you, the better he or she will be able to give an accurate interpretation of the scan. Carry with you to all appointments a detailed list of everything about your health. And, keep copies of all past CT scans on a disk to share with your radiologist.
  • CT scans probably won’t cause harm to adults. We hear a lot about the radiation in CT scans and the harm it can do to you in itself. However, the machines being used are improving and using less radiation. Chances of being harmed by the radiation involved are very small. This is not to say that you should have as many CT scans as you can. The diagnostic power of a CT is critical in diagnosing cancer and tracking remission and may very well save your life.

So, put another way:

  • Whenever possible get treatment at an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
  • Keep the records of your medical scans to pass on to new radiologists (including mammograms!)
  • Don’t worry about the very small harm possible because of CTs and focus on their tremendous diagnostic power.

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