Cancer risks from CT scans emerge in 2 studies

December 14, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
There is an alarming new warning about a medical test that tens of thousands of Americans have every year. CT scans can be life savers, but two studies published Monday reveal a bigger risk of getting cancer from those tests than originally thought.

CT scans, short for computerized tomography scan, are more popular than ever before and in many cases, conducted not in the best interest of the patient.

"I have a 16-year-old niece and my brother called me because the doctor had recommended that she get a bone scan. I mean she's 16 years old there's a lot of radiation in a bone scan," said UCSF cardiologist Dr. Rita Redberg, M.D.

Dr. Redberg wrote an editorial accompanying two studies published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The studies found a greater risk of cancer associated with CT scans than previously believed, perhaps contributing to as many as 29,000 new cancer cases each year. Some CT scans give off as much radiation as 442 chest X-rays.

"I think we need to do a better job of informing patients about the risks because we don't talk about the risk of radiation as much as we could and the cancer risk," said Dr. Redberg.

Researchers also examined over a 1,000 patients at four Bay Area hospitals and projected that the radiation from a single heart scan at age 40 would later result in cancer in 1 in 270 women and 1 in 600 men.

Yet despite those projections, doctors say CT scans remain a powerful tool and the risks associated with them shouldn't be generalized.

"When you look at a disease process, like lung cancer, we know from a variety of other studies that there is strong evidence that detecting cancers very early is associated with long term survival and improved survival," said UCSF Thoracic surgeon Pierre Theodore, M.D.

Like with any test, the benefits should outweigh the risks. Experts suggest patients to ask their doctors about alternatives that don't involve exposure to radiation.


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