I never recommend the full body CAT scans for healthy people. You've seen the advertisements. They tell you to come in, get a scan of your entire body, pay your thousand dollars and find out what's wrong with you before you have symptoms.
CAT scans of the body are high-speed, highly sensitive X-rays that can find tiny tumors, weak spots on blood vessels that make them bulge out like balloons, and calcified areas that may be indicative of heart disease. As a result of intense competition, prices are dropping, from $1,000 or more to a few hundred dollars. New centers are springing up in cities and strip malls across the country. They advertise in newspapers, on the radio, on billboards and in fliers sent by mail. There are even mobile units that travel from state to state in huge buses, make contacts with churches and other groups and then charge a reduced price of $200 to scan any of three regions of the body, or $500 for all three.
However, most of the radiologists that I know, who have no interest in making money from these scans and are not influenced by personal gain, tell me that they are a waste of money and time. They tell me that a careful look at most CAT scans shows that almost everyone will have some abnormality. Scanners can find lumps smaller than a millimeter, or four-hundredths of an inch, and most of these lumps are harmless. So you follow up the cat scan with several thousand dollars worth of other tests only to find out that you are normal and you have been upset for the sole reason that you took a test that picked up an a normal finding in most healthy people.
Furthermore, many people are fooled by the medical profession into thinking that early treatment results in cures for everything, when the truth is that early treatment often offers nothing but worry. For some cancers, early treatment has not been proved to have any effect on their course. "We've sold ourselves the myth that getting everything early is always good," said Dr. Larry Kessler, the director of the office of surveillance and biometrics at the Food and Drug Administration.
CAT scans are relatively safe, however. Since these CAT scan tests are usually not covered by insurance, you will have to pay for them and the odds are overwhelming that they will find nothing or that they will find something that is harmless. They then may cost you more money for many other tests, and loss of sleep before you find out that you do not have a tumor or any other serious disease.
On the other hand, those who provide the scans say they are a real service. The radiologists who do them are delighted with them. They offer a huge rate of profit. Since the patients pay out of pocket, there are no insurance companies to haggle with. What would you say if you had a CAT scan and they found nodules in your liver, kidneys and lungs. Your family practitioner will tell you that half of all normal people over 50 have cysts in their liver or kidneys. However, an abnormal full body CAT scan upsets your doctor who knows that if he misses a cancer, you will sue him. So against his better judgment, he orders a liver biopsy and another doctor sticks a needle into your liver, removes a piece of your liver, and finally tells you that you are normal and have nothing to worry about. Total body scans can pick up hidden cancers, ballooning blood vessels and plaques in your arteries, but they will also pick up a host of things that will cost you thousands of dollars and lots of worry before you find out that most healthy people have these abnormalities. Weekly newsletter