About six weeks ago, I tripped over a bolt jutting out of the floor of my garage and landed, head-first, on a spare car battery. It became clear within a few hours that I had a whopping concussion. In the impossibly bright lights of the emergency room, a friendly young resident told me she was considering whether or not to give me a CT scan.
“It’s just how tender your skull seems to be,” she said, puzzling it over. “I’m a little worried about whether you’ve fractured it, or whether there’s any bleeding in your brain.”
“What are the reasons for and against it?” my husband, ever the pragmatist, asked her.
“Well, if we did it and found out she has bleeding, we’d definitely keep her overnight, just to be able to check her regularly and get another scan in the morning.”
“So, why not do it?” I asked.
“Well, it’s a lot of radiation, is all…hang on a minute,” she mused, paging through my chart. “How old are you, again?”
“Forty-four, last week,” I told her.
She did what looked like some mental calculations in the air above her, then recommended that we do the CT scan. When pressed, she explained that the cancer risk comes about forty years after the exposure to radiation. By then, she calculated, I’d already be pretty old. It was a worthwhile risk, given the math.
So, I had the CT scan — and another a few days later, when my symptoms increased — and, thank goodness, there was no bleeding in my brain and no fracture to my skull. I couldn’t help but think, though, about my thirteen year old daughter.
She had a CT scan, with radioactive contrast solution, at 13 months old.
She had another one at eight years old.
The math is not as favorable when it comes to her, though I mused recently about the relative likelihood that I will still be alive when she is 41 and 48, forty years after her exposure to radiation. I will likely live to see her through whatever might happen — or to watch those years pass uneventfully, with the memories of those scans relegated to my posts here on the internet, however she might read them then.
As part of Finish the Sentence Friday this week, I had the opportunity to share any previous post. It seemed fitting that I would compare the judging of risk between my own CT scan and the scans of my daughter. There was no discussion of whether or not to do the scans for her. They were both absolute givens, the only diagnostic tool available to define the outlines of her tangled chest anatomy. Re-reading my accounting of her second scan — and writing about it for the book I’m trying to finish — makes my teeth chatter and my fingers shake.
How much faith we must have, to hand our dear ones and ourselves over to radiation! “A study in Australia of exposure to radiation from CT scans in childhood and adolescence found that after an average of about 9 ½ years, those who had a CT scan had a 24% higher risk of cancer overall. The risk of cancer was higher the more CT scans the person had, and it was also higher the younger the person was at the time of the CT scan. Still, the overall risk of cancer was still low.” (“Do x-rays and gamma rays cause cancer?” from cancer.org)
Because they told us to, we did it anyway, my daughter and I. You can read about it here, in a post called “A Test She Couldn’t Fail.”