PET scans for cancer detection

December 1, 2008 3:47:51 PM PST
Some of the biggest advances in medicine have come through imaging technology, machines like X-rays and MRIs that allow us to look inside the body. Now, a new study says PET scans are one of the most effective tools in finding and imaging cancer.

It's only been in the last 3 to 6 years that PET scan machines arrived at the big hospital centers in our area. The technology developed from an invention 30 years ago and is now deemed crucial in managing cancer.

For cancer patients and their doctors, some crucial questions can be: Is the treatment working? Is the chemotherapy effective? Is the radiation therapy shrinking the tumor? Did the cancer come back?

"As far as the imaging criteria is concerned, this is the most reliable way to tell if cancer has returned," said Dr. Munir Ghesani, of the Roosevelt Hospital-Beth Israel Medical Center.

Dr. Ghesani is a recognized expert in the area of nuclear medicine, a field in which the PET scan machine is now an integral part. The machine can scan any part of the body or the whole body.

PET stands for positive emission tomography. It uses glucose-targeted radioactive tracers that zero in and highlight the sugar-gobbling cancer cells.

"Whenever we see the signal, we know that this is, in fact, a tumor or a cancer that's dividing internally," Dr. Ghesani said.

Two years ago, Medicare launched a registry of cancer patients undergoing PET scans to monitor their therapy.

Now, the data from more than 8,000 patients across the country showed that in 43 percent of cases, four out of every 10, doctors changed the therapy the patient was getting because of the results of the scan.

Many doctors now feel PET scans are crucial for staging the cancer when it's first found, that is, to see how far it has spread, as well as for monitoring the treatment.

Another important use is the monitoring of survivors for recurrences.

"When a patient is clinically in remission, you want to know if a patient has a recurrent cancer or not," Dr. Ghesani said.

In many cases, finding any spreading early can make a big difference in survival. PET scans are now mostly used in combination with CAT scans and together have refined the effect of imaging in this area of medicine. Oddly, many insurances still don't pay for PET scans.

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STORY BY: Medical reporter Dr. Jay Adlersberg

WEB PRODUCED BY: Bill King

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