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CT Scans: Worth the Risk?

Speed and timing often matter in medicine. This is especially true in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Catching cancer before it has a chance to metastasize is critical for the patient in his/her fight for recovery and survival.

Lung cancer is one of the most lethal cancers – taking more than 150,000 American lives in 2010. Because lung cancer can be linked to smoking, particularly heavy smoking, doctors encourage those who smoke to have their lungs checked for cancer regularly.

One way to have lungs examined is through a computerized tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan is able to detect small bits of cancer. According to the preliminary results of a study by researchers at the National Cancer Institute, it may lower the risk of death in smokers who receive CT scans over smokers who receive x-rays as a means of cancer detection.

Even with the benefits of earlier detection and better survival rates among lung cancer patients, however, non-smokers may want to pass on the chest CT scan. The radiation exposure from CT scans is much higher than x-rays. And excessive radiation exposure puts patients at risk of developing cancer.

There are also other issues. CT scans may lead to a suspicion of cancer, which later proves to be wrong, according to the National Cancer Institute. This may subject the patient to unneeded procedures. False-positives can also occur when CT scans detect what appear to be other abnormalities.

Finally, CT scans may not improve a patient’s prognosis. They could lead to diagnoses for ailments that are essentially harmless because they never cause symptoms or ailments in patients – this is often referred to as “overdiagnosis”.

These are issues that should be considered by a patient and his doctor. The patient should be the one making the decision to be safe or sorry. From 31 years of practice I have seen many unfortunate people whose cancer was discovered too late to save them, who wished that they had been given the choice of possibly finding the cancer, when it still could be treated. In all those years no one ever complained to us that a preliminary diagnosis of cancer, proved to be wrong.

It is important to be fully informed about the risks that medical procedures pose. Talk to your doctor about your situation and weigh the risks and benefits of a procedure before undergoing the procedure.