CT Scans and Mammograms Cause Cancer

Two new studies in the Archives of Internal Medicine urge caution in the use of CT scans and other forms of medical imaging that involve radiation. CT scans and mammograms use radiation, although the dose from a mammogram is smaller.

These studies support new controversial breast cancer screening guidelines which push back the recommended age for annual mammograms to 50 from 40.

The CT scan, or computerized tomography scan, has been used since the 1990s, and its use has grown dramatically, according to the Wall Street Journal.

One study of more than 1,000 adult patients found that the dose of radiation received in a single CT scan of the heart would later cause cancer in 1 in 270 women and 1 in 600 men. However, the dose of radiation varies widely depending on the hospital and the equipment. There can even be wide variation of radiation doses using the same equipment at the same hospital.

“These are doses we should be concerned about,” said Dr. Rebecca Smith-Bindman, first author of the study. “They don’t have to be this high.”

Variation in doses may be due to a lack of standardized settings and differences in how radiologists and technicians use the technology.

Another study estimated that 29,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans received in 2007 alone. Cancers in the pelvis and abdomen are projected to the most common. The study found the young patients are at greatest risk. For example, a female who received an abdominal scan at age 3 had a 1 in 500 chance of developing cancer due to the radiation from the scan.

These studies bring into question the overuse of radiation-based imaging studies for screening purposes.

“You’re exposing a lot of healthy people,” said Amy Berrington of the National Cancer Institute.

CT machines can be dangerous if used incorrectly. For example, last year patients at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles received more than eight times the normal dose of radiation after a CT scan machine was reset. The error was discovered only after a patient started to lose his hair following a scan. Over 200 people suffered from radiation sickness because of the product defect.

More than 19,000 CT scans are performed in the United States each day. In many cases, CT scans are still necessary. The risks should be weight against the benefits.

On December 1, a study presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North American verified that mammography screenings may cause breast cancer in women who are predisposed to the disease. The study found that low-dose mammography radiation increased the chance of developing breast cancer by 150 percent for a group of high-risk women.

Non-radiation breast cancer screening alternatives are available. These include ultrasounds, MRIs, and thermography screenings.

Next time your doctor wants to shoot you with radiation, make sure there’s a darn good reason!

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