The Link Between CT Scans and Cancer

Emily Holbrook


March 1, 2010

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield of England invented the CT, or computerized tomography, scan in 1967 and unveiled it to the world in 1972. Meanwhile, Allan McLeod Cormack of Tufts University independently invented a similar process around the same time and both men shared the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution to modern science. Since then, the use and popularity of the CT scan has skyrocketed. It is used for everything from determining if there is a presence of blood clots or tumors in the brain to detecting abnormalities of the lungs and the diagnosis of abdominal diseases such as renal stones, appendicitis and pancreatitis.

Many in the medical field feel that the advantages of CT scans over traditional, 2D radiology are countless. But those advantages come with heavy disadvantages and it has long been known that exposure to excessive radiation increases a person's chance of developing cancer. But now, more reports are surfacing claiming that CT scans are far more dangerous than previously believed.

The Archives of Internal Medicine recently released two studies that link CT scans to a higher chance of cancer, for areas of the chest and pelvis, especially in young women. "An estimated one in 270 women who underwent CT coronary angiography at age 40 will develop cancer from that CT scan, compared with an estimated one in 8,100 women who had a routine head CT scan at the same age," states one report. For 20-year-old patients, the report found that the risks approximately doubled, but for 60-year-old patients, they were approximately 50% lower. The second report claims that 29,000 future cancers could be related to CT scans received in 2007, with the greatest number of cancers projected in the abdomen and pelvic area.

This is troubling news, especially since the use of CT scans in the United States has risen from 3 million in 1980 to an estimated 62 million in 2006. In fact, the Archives of Internal Medicine claims that 19,500 CT scans are performed daily, exposing the patient to radiation equivalent to up to 442 chest x-rays.

So while the benefits of CT scans are undoubtedly far reaching when diagnosing an injury or abnormality, the lethal risks of overuse, especially in young patients, may far outweigh the many benefits.
Emily Holbrook is the founder of Red Label Writing, LLC, a writing, editing and content strategy firm catering to insurance and risk management businesses and publications, and a former editor of Risk Management.