When you think about “radiation,” you might think of glowing green radioactive stones, like the uranium used in atomic bombs. But ionizing radiation is all around us. It’s in the soil, the environment, our homes, and it’s even blasting down on us from the sun’s cosmic rays (and your exposure is higher if you’re up in a plane).
Ionizing radiation is a high energy wave (consisting of highly energized particles) emitted by unstable, radioactive atoms. As these atoms decay, they send out energy powerful enough to knock electrons off other molecules lying in their path. If a molecule that gets in the way of this blast is a part of living tissue, the radiation will mutate, damage, or even kill the cell. This causes many types of cancer, including leukemia, and makes cancer worse if it’s already present.
I’ve been concerned for a long time that medical professionals rely on radiation so heavily for diagnostic scans like x-rays, CT, and PET scans. The use and overuse of scans presents a huge problem for anyone concerned about cancer. This publication has already been on record for a long time opposing routine mammograms for most women.
Besides the energy rays they blast through the body, some diagnostic scans also require the patient to inhale, swallow, or inject radioactive materials. Medical professionals insist that the radiation used in medical imaging is “minimal,” and that the “benefits greatly outweigh the risks.” Does that make you feel comfortable blasting vulnerable parts of your body with radiation? Me either.
So, how much radiation are we really talking here? And how do you know whether the benefits of medical imaging truly do outweigh the risks? Find out the facts you need to know to make the right decision for yourself or your loved ones. . .
The question to ask is whether a scan is essential or whether there’s some other way of getting an accurate diagnosis. Probability plays a role, too. How likely is it that a chronic headache is caused by a brain tumor? Not very, but do you want to take the chance? The only way to be sure is to agree to a scan.
There are plenty of reasons your doctor will want to use a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, for example, to find cancer. It’s the most effective tool for diagnosing cancer available today.
Yet, the best test to find cancer causes cancer. Doctors focus on the “best test” benefit and gloss over the “causes cancer” part. That’s why 90 percent of diagnostic cancer scans are PET scans.
And there are plenty of reasons you might agree with your doctor and want to have these exams done. You want to be proactive and be sure there’s no cancer lurking in your body, especially if you’re at risk genetically or demographically. And if you’ve ever been diagnosed with early-stage cancer, you want to track it and make sure it hasn’t metastasized.
But getting scanned multiple times a year could worsen cancer … or make it grow where you were previously cancer-free. Thus, the conundrum.
How much radiation are we
really talking about?
Even though radiation techs are supposed to use the least amount of radiation possible, is the minimum still too much? In a minute, you’ll be able to determine for yourself whether the benefits truly outweigh the risks.
Ionizing radiation is typically measured in millisieverts (mSv). You may also see radiation units in rems, an old unit that only Americans use anymore. 1 rem is the equivalent of 10 mSv. For the purposes of this article, we’ll stick to mSv.
As citizens of Earth, we’re exposed to about 3.0 mSv of natural “background” radiation per year from radiation in the soil, natural radon gas, and the sun. Those living at high altitudes get 1.5 mSv more per year than those living at sea level.
Here are a few more examples:
- A 10-hour flight exposes you to .03 mSv of ionizing radiation.
- A dental panoramic x-ray (all your teeth, top and bottom) is about .09 mSv.
- A mammogram x-ray exposes a woman to .4 mSv, about a month and a half worth of natural background radiation.
- A chest CT is 8 mSv—almost three years’ worth.
- An abdominal CT uses 10 mSv of radiation.
- Most PET scans expose you to 14 mSv – an enormous amount.
- The maximum level per year of occupational exposure for people in radiation-related occupations is 50 mSv.
- Smoking a pack of cigarettes per day for a year adds an extra 53 mSv of inhaled radiation.1,2
How does this radiation affect
your cancer risk?
Your risk of cancer from ionizing radiation increases approximately 5.5 percent per 1000 millisieverts. That’s likely what medical professionals are referring to when they say the “benefits outweigh the risks.”
However, if you’re already at risk for cancer, there’s no telling whether that extra radiation will tip the scale … or how much damage it could really do. That extra mammogram or PET scan starts to look more dangerous and less beneficial. As many alternative doctors have stated, “No amount of exposure is safe!”
And it’s not just a matter of whether radiation will give you cancer. Whether you get cancer or not, radiation still affects your cells and DNA … so much so, scientists have been able to estimate how exposure to radiation reduces the average person’s life expectancy … to the minute.
Though it’s an oversimplified model, experts have estimated a PET scan involving 50 mSv is the equivalent of 100 hours of life lost, just by exposure to dangerous radioactive material.3
What options do you have?
When it comes to the sheer size of the radiation dose, the worst offender in the medical world is by far the PET scan. Ironically, this test is the one used most often for diagnosing and keeping tabs on cancer. But after just three PET scans, you’ve lost nearly four days of your life, not including the cancerous growths they cause or exacerbate.
A PET scan is a popular test because it allows doctors to watch how your body is functioning at the chemical level. It uses a radioactive tracer, either through inhalation, oral administration, or injection, depending on which organ is being studied.
To find cancer, they might inject you with glucose that’s been tagged with radioactive material. Because glucose goes straight to cancer cells – cancer cells love sugar – the radiation lights up the scan and the diagnostician can tell exactly where you have cancer and how much.
As it stands, there are no other tests that measure metabolic and chemical functions in the body—CT and MRI scans only measure anatomical structures. So, an MRI will be able to determine location and size of a tumor … but only a PET scan can determine whether the tumor is metabolically active or whether it’s responding to treatment.
Even though your options for non-radiative exams are limited, you always have the option to say “no” to unnecessary tests—especially because repeat exposure and build-up of radiation is the primary cause for concern.
Experts say the damage is cumulative – from the first X-ray you ever had as a child to the one you had last week, the damage has built up in your body. Appoint yourself to be your own protector and advocate when it comes to your health. Only get medical imaging tests that are absolutely necessary. Say no to regular mammograms and other “just in case” tests. And when you have the option, insist on using non-radiative tests such as MRI and ultrasounds first.
If a test is absolutely necessary—and I concede there are times when that’s the case—ask your medical tech for the following safety procedures. And don’t feel bad about “overstepping your bounds.” This is your health; do not assume someone else is going to protect it.
- Ask for a shield to protect the other parts of your body that aren’t being imaged … such as a lead collar to protect your hyper-sensitive thyroid, or a chest apron during dental x-rays.
- Ask for the lowest dose possible. The New York Times reported in 2009 that in one case, over 200 older adults received 8 times the amount of radiation necessary during CT scans.4 Be sure your tech is paying attention and that he or she uses as little radiation as possible for the shortest time possible.
- Ask to be referred to a newer machine that uses lower radiation. Not all hospitals have them, but it’s worth your time and effort to find a lower dosage machine.
If you must have a radioactive test done, there are also many natural steps you can take to protect your sensitive DNA before and after the exam.
Natural ways to protect your
cells after radiation exposure
If you don’t take action, radiation does build up in the body … as we’ve seen from radon gas building up in the lungs and leading to 21,000 cases of lung cancer per year.
If you’ve been through recent radiative tests or you’re expecting one, you might consider detoxifying your body with these natural “radioprotective” steps.
- Use food therapy to proactively protect your DNA. Common foods like mushrooms (especially maitake and shitake), avocados (for their essential fatty acids), applesauce, garlic and lemons have all been cited for post-radiation detox … while less common foods like seaweed, elderberry syrup, and miso are also recommended. Apple pectin especially is known for binding radioactive materials in the body and helping them pass harmlessly.
- Try dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO). A Japanese study showed even low doses of DMSO had full-body radioprotective effects.5
- Supplement with green algae products like chlorella. Studies suggest that green algae products like chlorella can help protect your body against toxins such as mercury and radiation.
Someday, I hope we’ll leave the Dark Ages of blasting people with carcinogenic radiation and invent medical imaging techniques that don’t put vulnerable patients at risk. We’re well on our way with more people using thermograms (which read heat patterns in the body) instead of mammograms and high-tech ultrasound devices that use sound to “see” inside dense tissue and organs.
Until more of these safe, effective tests become the gold standard in cancer detection, I hope you feel empowered to ask your doctor for another option … and at the very least, keep all unnecessary tests to a minimum and use the natural steps listed above to protect your health.
- General questions and comments on radiation risk. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/understandingyourdiagnosis/examsandtestdescriptions/
- Radiation exposure from medical diagnostic imaging processes: fact sheet http://hps.org/documents/meddiagimaging.pdf
- Hyperphysics: At what level is radon dangerous? http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/nuclear/radon.html
- Bogdanich W. Radiation overdoses point up dangers of CT scans. The New York Times. October 15, 2009.
- An alternative mechanism for radioprotection by dimethyl sulfoxide; possible facilitation of DNA double-strand break repair. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21116101