Did Your Doctor Order a CT Scan? Ask About Cancer Risks

Posted on Dec 30, 2014 | 1 comment


Computed tomography (CT) scans can help doctors to avoid missing or delaying a diagnosis of cancer or other serious medical conditions. However, the exposure to ionizing radiation that these tests involve may, at the same time, increase a patient’s risk of developing cancer.

This why many doctors and organizations are calling for patients to learn more and discuss the risks and benefits of a CT scan with their doctor before they undergo one, as ABC News/Health.com recently reported.

According to the article, CT scans have become increasingly used by doctors to check a patient for cancer due to the fact that they are cheaper and faster than MRIs or exploratory surgery and provide more detail than traditional X-rays. Between 1980 and 2013, the number of CT scans performed each year in the U.S. soared from around 3 million to 76 million, the article states.

However, a patient undergoing a CT scan generally receives a high dose of ionizing radiation. While the body can repair damage caused by small doses of radiation, the high dosage in a CT scan is one that simply overwhelms the body’s “repair mechanisms,” potentially leading to cancer, the article states.

The cancer risk is higher if a patient undergoes multiple CT scans, and women may face a higher possibility of developing cancer from the radiation than men, according to ABC News/Health.com.

The report cites a 2009 National Cancer Institute study which found that 29,000 future cases of cancer could result from 72 million CT scans that were performed in the U.S. in 2007.

Cardiologists Call for Patient-Doctor Discussion About CT Scans

As Reuters reports, several medical organizations issued a statement in September2014 in the medical journal, Circulation, which urged doctors to carefully discuss the risks and benefits of chest CT scans with their patients and to explain to patients why a CT scan was being used in their case.

Ultimately, a patient and doctor must “share” the decision to go forward with the test, according to the statement, which was signed by organizations that included the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology.

Dr. Andrew J Einstein of Columbia University in New York told Reuters that patients should not necessarily be “scared off” by the discussion or refuse undergoing what could be a potentially life-saving test.

Still, Einstein said, “As doctors, it is our obligation to make sure that we, our colleagues and our patients understand the potential benefits of a medical imaging study as well as potential risks,” according to Reuters.

Questions You Should Ask Your Doctor

If you are suffering symptoms of cancer or any other serious medical condition, your doctor may tell you that he or she would like to order a CT scan. Before you agree to undergo the test, ask your doctor:

  • What specific symptoms make the CT scan necessary?
  • Could alternatives such as X-rays, MRIs or ultrasounds be used instead, and how do those alternatives compare to a CT scan in terms of risks and benefits? You may also ask about how the alternatives compare in terms of cost and the amount of time involved to perform each one.
  • If a CT scan is needed, what is the typical dosage of radiation for such a scan and/or the actual dosage that will be used in this specific test?
  • Will there be additional CT scans? If so, how many more tests? What are the risks and benefits of multiple CT scans?

The bottom line is that you have the right, as a patient, to have as much information as possible about the tests your doctor orders you to undergo. Ultimately, if you find that the risks outweigh the benefits, you have a right to withhold consent and seek a second medical opinion.

Robert Gordon (70 Posts)

Robert Gordon is the editor of medical-directions.com, a health fanatic and avid Kayaker. He spends most of his time reading medical blogs and searching for new content to engage his readership.


1 Comment

  1. I like how you emphasized the importance of being well informed before going through with a medical procedure. I’ve heard that CT scans are safe unless you get multiple scans in a short period of time. Even so, being well informed and weighing the pros and cons is still a good thing to do if your doctor recommended a CT scan for you. Thanks for the article.

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