How to stop heart disease early — and get cancer in the process

January 26, 2010
Volume 07    |   Issue 4

A few years ago, two healthy friends of mine asked me if they should get a full body CT (computed tomography) scan. CT scans can detect many potential health problems. The medical thinking is that if you can find it early enough, you can treat the problem easier. It sounds great. Who doesn’t want to find the early stages of heart disease and other serious illnesses before they really cause serious damage?

So you can understand why CT scans became so popular. At the time, companies were popping up all over the place that offered complete body scans. Anyone could just walk into their offices and get them without a prescription or even a doctor’s opinion. My friends were in favor of any diagnostic tests that could help them stay healthy. But they were smart. They decided to check out these scans before getting them.

I told them that CT scans have one major problem. They give off radiation. And even small amounts of radiation can contribute to cancer. Unfortunately, CT scans give off much more radiation than “old fashioned” diagnostic tests, such as X-rays.

You’ve probably heard that the amount of radiation from chest X-rays is enough to lead to cancer. But you may not realize just how dangerous CT scans are. A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that a chest CT (computed tomography) scan exposes you to more than 100 times the amount of radiation in a single chest X-ray!

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The doses of radiation you’re exposed to vary greatly depending on the imaging machines the company uses, the areas they scan, and your age. According to the report, researchers “estimated that approximately 29,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans performed in the U.S. in 2007.” Add in the CT scans performed before and after 2007 and that number skyrockets.

Hospitals use CT scans as if they were safe and inexpensive. They’re neither. More often, patients go from the hospital ER to the CT scanner before they’ve seen and been evaluated by a doctor. And because scans have become more sensitive, the findings frequently send patients back for more tests, and more exposure to radiation. And the results often bring prescriptions for dangerous drugs.

So don’t be tempted to try new diagnostic tests because you think they will keep you healthier. And question any recommendations from your doctor about the tests they prescribe.  Research their safety thoroughly before taking them. Make sure they’re necessary and produce the least possible risk to your health. There’s no reason to exchange one disease for another and any amount of radiation increases your risk for cancer.

Your voice of reason in Women's Health,


Arch Intern Med., December 14, 2009;169 [22]:2078-2086, 2071-2077.

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