PET Scan: Is This Diagnostic Method Ideal for Cancer?

Over the past few years, medical science has advanced a lot. Today, we have machines, tools, and treatments to deal with even life-threatening problems like cancer.

A PET Scan- Positron Emission Tomography- is a common diagnostic method used in cardiology, neurology, and oncology.

Do you know each year, nearly 2 million PET scans are performed in the United States?

However, doctors use PET scans to diagnose cancers. It uses radiation to examine the organs’ metabolism. Hence, it makes an ideal diagnostic method for cancer, as cancer cells have a high metabolism.

A PET Scan can be combined with MRI or CT scan to produce images of the organs that are multidimensional and colorful. This means your doctor can have a better image of your organs and their functionality. In simple words, a PET scan helps healthcare professionals to understand how organs look like as well as the complex functionalities.

Usually, doctors use PET Scan for diagnostic purposes, planning treatment and tracking the effects of treatment.

How does PET Scan work?

A PET scan, an outpatient procedure, works by detecting radiation emitted by a radiotracer. It has radioactive material, which is tagged to glucose – a natural chemical. The radiotracer is injected, swallowed, or inhaled by the patient’s body where it travels from one cell, which uses glucose for energy. As the tracer moves, it will be absorbed by certain organs and tissues.

Please keep in mind, the more energy certain cells use, the more the radiotracer will be absorbed by them. The radiotracer buildup will be clearly shown on images produced by a computer. The buildup is known as “hot spots” or “cold spots,” which show the activity or active areas.

Well, the areas that are not much active will appear less bright, known as “cold spots.” On the other hand, active areas will be more bright, also referred to as “hot spots.”

For example, when it comes to cancer cells, they are very active and use more glucose as compared to normal cells. As a result, these cells will appear brighter on the images produced by a computer.

What are the uses of a PET scan?

You may be recommended by your doctor to undergo a PET scan for various reasons. For example, your doctor may want to check your oxygen intake, blood flow, or the metabolism rate of your tissues and organs. PET scans can examine problems in the body at the cellular level. Thus, your doctor can have the best view of your complex diseases.

As mentioned already, a PET scan can be used with MRI or CT scan for better diagnosis. This is because combined methods produced colorful and multidimensional images, which can give a better picture of health condition and treatment progression. When it comes to CT or MRI scans, they show your doctor how organs look like, whereas, a PET scan can tell about their functionality.

Doctors use PET scans to diagnose a number of health conditions. Below we have given some of the conditions that can be investigated with PET Scans.

Cancer – As compared to normal cells, tumor cells have a higher metabolic rate, which means they consume more energy (glucose). Since cancer cells have a high level of activity, they appear brighter “hot spots” on PET scans. Hence, PET scans are used to detect cancer, how much it has spread and to see if treatment is effective against the cancer cells or not.

However, PET scan must be performed by an experienced healthcare technician and the reports should be carefully checked by the best doctor in your area. This is because sometimes, noncancerous cells may look like tumor cells on a PET scan and vice versa. And only an experienced and board-certified doctor can distinguish between cancerous and normal cells.

Diseases and problems related to the heart – PET scans can also be used to detect heart problems. They work by detecting the part of the heart with decreased blood flow. In this, healthy heart tissue absorbs more tracer as compared to unhealthy tissue. Varying degrees of brightness on a PET scan will help your doctor to determine the damaged parts of your heart and accordingly, he/she will plan a treatment for you.

Brain disorders – A human brain uses glucose as an ultimate energy source. PET scans use a radio tracer that is tagged to natural compounds such as glucose. The damaged cells of the brain will utilize the highest levels of radioactive glucose which will appear bright on a PET scan. The following central nervous system disorders can be diagnosed with PET scans.

  • Depression
  • Epilepsy
  • Head trauma
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

Now that you’re familiar with how PET scan works and its uses, it’s time to know what preparation you need to follow before the scan.

How to prepare yourself before the PET scan?

Although your healthcare professional will give you proper instructions about the preparation before the PET scan, it is good to be well informed. Don’t forget to tell your doctor about any ongoing medications, if any.

  • You should avoid getting involved in any strenuous activities a few days before the scan or at least 24 to 48 hours before the test.
  • You should strictly follow a low-carb and no sugar diet for 24 hours. This means no pasta, cereal, rice, bread, alcohol, chewing gum, dairy products, mints, caffeinated beverages, fruits, and fruit juices.

Important Considerations

Never hide anything from your doctor. Be very open, if:

  • You’re pregnant
  • Breastfeeding your little ones
  • Have diabetes

The Bottom Line

A PET scan is one of the safest ways to detect cancer, heart disorders, and diseases related to the brain. However, very rarely, patients may develop an allergic reaction with a tracer. Also, it is advisable to stay away from pregnant women, young children, and infants for a few hours after the PET scan.

Now that you know all the important things about the PET scans, you can confidently go ahead and get your test done. Don’t forget to follow the instructions.

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