Mammograms… bone density tests… computed tomography (CT) scans… dental x-rays…
These are just a few of the medical tests that will expose you to low doses of radiation. You’ll hear the tests are safe and that there’s little to no risk of long-term damage. And that’s what most of us want to believe.
But is it true? Keep reading. . .
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The doubts creep in when you hear reports like the one from researchers at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. They suggest that complex heart imaging can increase cancer risks for children throughout their lifetime.
The study was co-authored by hospital cardiologist Jason Johnson, MD, MHS. The study appears in the June 9, 2014 issue of the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.
The researchers determined that standard X-rays don’t significantly raise cancer risks for young children. But they did find that children undergoing CT scans and other complex procedures involving higher radiation have higher risks.
In fact, the lifetime increase in cancer risk ranges from 0.002 percent for chest X-rays to 0.4 percent for each complex CT scan or cardiac catheterization. Thus, three or four CT scans would lead to a greater lifetime cancer risk of 1.2 to 1.6 percent. This may not sound like much, but it’s significant.
This is just one study suggesting that such tests administered to children may contribute to later cancer diagnoses. There are others.
For these children, cancer will most likely appear much later, when they’re adults. Likewise for all forms of medical radiation, whatever your age when you’re exposed. The impact is felt decades later, and it’s the cumulative result of ALL the X-rays or CT scans you’ve received throughout your life.
This isn’t some wild bit of paranoia from the alternative medicine crowd. It’s a fact acknowledged by mainstream medicine.
Even the cancer establishment says these tests are risky!
An American Cancer Society (ACS) fact sheet provides a one-word answer to the question of whether x-rays and gamma rays cause cancer: YES!
They cite a boatload of evidence from sources such as:
- Studies of atomic bomb survivors in Japan…
- Chernobyl nuclear accident survivors…
- People treated with high doses of radiation for cancer and other conditions
- People with high levels of workplace radiation exposure
Granted, it’s hard to measure the cancer risk from lower levels of radiation exposure because the effects can take many years to appear.
Plus the frequent use of high-dose imaging techniques, such as CT scans and nuclear medical imaging, only got started around 1980.
But ACS said most scientists and regulatory agencies agree that even small doses of gamma and x-radiation increase cancer risk.
Generally, studies show the risk of cancer from radiation exposure increases as the dose of radiation increases. For example, a 2009 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston estimated the potential cancer risk from CT scans in 31,462 patients over 22 years.
The increase in cancer risk was slight—a mere 0.7 percent above the overall lifetime risk of cancer in the U.S. for the group as a whole, which is 42%.
But the risks escalated in patients who had multiple CT scans, ranging from an increase of 2.7 percent to 12 percent!
Given that nearly all of us will need to submit to some of these tests within our lifetime, you may be wondering…
What can I do to protect myself?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal and state agencies regulate medical procedures that use radiation. These groups also provide guidance to minimize unnecessary use of radiation to diagnose and treat health conditions.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), improvements in x-ray films and equipment decrease your radiation exposure from medical procedures. They say an improved ability to target radiation to one part of the body also results in less exposure.
But if you’re still concerned about how new diagnostic tests could increase radiation exposure and raise cancer risks, Dr. Celeste Robb-Nicholson, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and founding editor-in-chief of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, makes these suggestions:
- Discuss high-dose diagnostic imaging with your medical provider – If your clinician has ordered a CT, it’s reasonable to ask what difference test results will make in how your condition is managed
- Keep records of your radiation exposure—Track your x-ray history, listing dates and types of exams. Make sure your medical providers have this information to avoid duplicate procedures.
- Consider a lower-dose radiation test—Ask if another technique would work, such as a lower-dose x-ray or a test that uses no radiation, such as ultrasound (uses high-frequency sound waves) or an MRI (uses magnetic energy). Neither ultrasound nor MRI appears to harm DNA or increase cancer risk.
- Try testing less frequently—Ask about the possibility of increasing the time between scans.
- Don’t request unnecessary scans—CT scans rarely produce important findings in people without relevant symptoms, so if a scan finds something incidental, it could lead to additional CT scans or x-rays that increase your radiation exposure.
You’ll probably never be able to avoid ALL forms of radiation from medical tests. But applying the suggestions above can help shield you from the invisible threat these tests can pose to your health.
I recently needed an imaging test to determine whether I had prostate cancer. My doctor, an integrative M.D., urged me to have a PET scan. It’s the most accurate cancer diagnostic test available, which is why nine out of ten diagnostic cancer scans are PET scans.
But PET scans also involve a massive dose of radiation — 75% more than a chest x-ray, and 35 times the dose of radiation of a routine mammogram.
Unlike most patients, I knew all this and said no to a PET scan. I asked my doctor (who’s a holistic guy, as I mentioned) to do some digging and make some phone calls to try to find another way.
He found a specialized type of MRI, available at only a few hospitals, that gives a highly accurate picture of the prostate. I went for that. Fortunately the test was negative and showed no cancer. And I totally avoided a megadose of radiation.
If you want to delve deeper into radiation exposure from medical imaging tests, our article in Issue #452 went into the subject in greater depth.
Lee Euler, Publisher