PET (positron emission tomography) scans help to deliver clear images of the biological functions of the body. They help to detect disease quicker compared to other imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans. A PET scan is a highly technological nuclear procedure that is very safe with no known potential side effects. The risks for this procedure apply only to a few cases.
The procedure requires the patient to be injected with a radioactive tracer, which is compounded with low dose radioisotope and sugar. The radioactive compound travels to the location being imaged while the patient rests still on the scanner for about 40 to 45 minutes. Once it reaches the cancer location, the tracer will emit signals, which will be translated into images by a computer.
During cancer diagnosis, doctors want to look at all angles of the disease, including the possible causes and consequences. PET can be combined with other imaging techniques to get anatomic and metabolic information of cells in the body.
A PET scan in itself is painless. The scanner does not emit radiation, and the amount of radiotracer used in imaging is minimal. The time the drug is in the body extremely short since the radiotracer contains glucose and a radioactive isotope. This means the drug will be out of the system within a short period and will not cause problems.
As for pregnant women, nursing mothers, people allergic to iodine and sugar substitutes like saccharin and aspartame, they are advised not to get a PET scan to avoid complications. Nursing mothers who must have the scan should pump and store breast milk since they will only breastfeed again 24 hours after the scan. Those allergic to iodine and sugar substitutes can talk to their physicians to use an alternate compound such as diluted barium.
If you are diabetic, a PET scan may affect your blood sugar level. Consult with your doctor regarding your medication before your scheduled scan.