Understanding radiology and cancer: All about PET scans, bone scans and more


by Baylor Scott & White Health

May 21, 2021

Medical imaging is an integral part of almost every cancer journey. If your doctor suspects cancer, one of the next steps will likely be an appointment with a radiologist.

You’ve probably heard the term radiology or radiologist, but do you understand what role the radiologist plays in your cancer care? Do you know what to expect if you need a CT scan, PET scan or MRI? We’re here to introduce you to the world of medical imaging and help you understand its importance. Knowledge provides confidence, and we want you to be confident in the care you receive while understanding why these tests are important to your treatment.

Diagnostic radiology explained

Thanks to advancing imaging technology, doctors have more ways than ever to screen, diagnose and manage your cancer and provide therapeutic options. It’s a journey that often starts with a diagnostic radiologist. These highly skilled doctors use the most advanced imaging equipment available to generate images of the inside of the body through a range of procedures.

Diagnostic images are used to:

  • look for the cause of your symptoms
  • find out how far your cancer may have spread
  • monitor your body’s response to cancer treatment

“As a radiologist, my specialty really is human anatomy and the way that anatomy is affected by certain disease processes,” said J. Mark Fulmer, MD, a diagnostic radiologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center. “My job is to communicate that to the doctor who’s taking care of the patient. It’s a very exciting time to be in the world of medical imaging. We have a lot of tools in the toolbox.”

What is a PET scan?

PET scan is like your radiologist’s ace detective. The information gathered during the scan can help your doctor understand what’s happening on the inside of your body. The scan produces images of your organs and tissues at work. It can detect cancer, determine if cancer has spread or how your body has responded to cancer therapy.

In addition, a PET scan can be used to assess Alzheimer’s, dementia, or certain cardiac conditions. This is a non-invasive, 90-minute painless procedure. During the PET scan, a tiny amount of radioactive sugar is injected into your blood stream.

What is a bone scan?

During a bone scan, your radiologist will check to see if there have been any physical or chemical changes in your bones. To do this, a small amount of radioactive of material is placed in an IV and then metabolized, Dr. Fulmer said.

“We make a picture of the whole body, head to toe,” he said. “We’re looking for places in the body with more metabolic activity.”

Dr. Fulmer said there could be some “hot spots,” scattered around in the body. These “hot spots” could indicate the presence of conditions such as certain types of bone cancer, bone infections or bone trauma.

Because the body can have several “hot spots,” Dr. Fulmer said that a bone scan is always followed by anatomic images to make sure the diagnosis is correct.

What is a CT scan?

CT scans (also known as computed tomography or CAT scans) use special x-ray equipment to create detailed images of areas inside the body. CT scans can help:

  • detect cancer and find the right place for a biopsy
  • diagnose stage and plan cancer treatment
  • assess how well treatment is working
  • check for cancer recurrence

More ways to screen, diagnose and treat cancer

Along with the imaging techniques we explored above, a radiologist may look to other tools to screen, diagnose and treat your cancer, such as:

  • MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging)
  • ultrasound
  • x-ray

Learn more about the imaging tests used to diagnose and treat cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

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