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Abnormal CAT Scans - Not Always Bad News

Posted Mar 09 2009 12:00am
One of the most vexing events for patients is when they are told that there is an abnormality on a radiology study. These discussions in doctors’ offices create palpable anxiety for patients and their families, even when physicians try to reassure them that the abnormalities are likely to be trivial. Patients today are frightened that they have cancer. They all know anecdotes of individuals who were falsely reassured and were ultimately diagnosed with a malignancy. I have heard fears of cancer related to me by teenagers who have seen me as a gastroenterologist to evaluate a few drops of blood they observed on the toilet tissue. Their fear is not rationale, but it is real.

A few weekends ago, I was asked to see 2 patients on my hospital rounds to offer an opinion on abnormal CAT scans. The first patient’s scan showed an abdominal mass the size of a grapefruit that the radiologist suspected was related to the patient’s prior diagnosis of colon cancer. The second patient’s scan showed multiple lesions in her liver, which the radiologist suggested could represent metastatic cancer.

No physician looks forward to relating these ominous findings to patients and their families. Such devastating news provokes legitimate anxiety and worry, in contrast to the exaggerated concerns that patients feel after being advised of minor radiologic abnormalities.

I am not a radiologist and have only rudimentary CAT scan interpretation skills. Yet, I was able to advise both hospital patients that all would be well. How was I able to do this? Was I in a deep state of denial and issued false hope to minimize my own discomfort? Was I reclaiming the paternalism of my medical predecessors who routinely withheld serious medical information from patients? Was I so sleep deprived from phone calls through the night that I was too stuporous to function properly?

On the contrary, I was well rested and clear minded. I was able to dismiss the ominous CAT findings using a technique taught to me as a medical student over 25 years ago. Afterwards, I politely chastised the radiologists for neglecting the fundamentals that they also were taught in their training.

It only took a few minutes for me to determine that the scan findings were harmless. I simply looked through the prior medical records and in both cases found CAT scans from years ago that showed the exact same ‘abnormalities’. While I couldn’t offer a specific diagnosis, I knew that the findings were benign as the lesions had not changed.

If you are told that a radiology test is abnormal, make every effort to determine if a similar study was done in the past. Comparing the recent test with the previous one can be the cure you seek. These prior films may be in hospitals across town or in other states. These records can be hard to get, but the payoff can be enormous.

I advise patients to maintain a master file of their lab results, radiology reports and other medical records. Now you know why.
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