When you get a chest X-ray, do you think of radiation damage? Some do, most don’t. When your doctor recommends that your child needs a chest X-ray, do you question it? Perhaps you should.
Recent research published in the British Medical Journal shows that chest X-rays given to some young girls increased their risk of getting breast cancer as adults. That’s unsettling.
Let me start by explaining which girls were at risk – those who had the BRCA gene. This genetic defect puts any young women at a super-high risk for breast cancer. Some young women with the BRCA gene have their breasts removed because they fear the cancer will get them.
Research published in the British Medical Journal showed that a girl with the BRCA gene who had a chest X-ray before age 20 was 62 percent more likely to develop breast cancer. The radiation from a simple chest X-ray seemed to activate the BRCA gene.
Why is this happening? X-rays are a form of radiation, and any time you get radiation you have a small but definite risk of cancer. The younger you are when you get the radiation, the higher the risk.
Many doctors do X-rays at the drop of a hat – not just because they think it’s good medicine but also because so many patients expect it to be done.
When I was a kid back in the 1950s, my doctor sat me in front of a fluoroscope for every well-child visit. My mom loved it. She smiled when the doctor said, “Rhoda, he looks just fine.”
This routine use of the X-ray machine was done not because I was sick, but rather because the technology was there – which the doctor and the patient (or in this case, my mother) loved. But technology is a double-edged sword.
We’ve come a long way since the 1950s. X-ray machines are better than ever. They use less radiation and give better pictures. They are life-saving devices.
But the more X-rays you get, the more risk you take. We now know that these young BRCA-positive women are at risk when they get any X-ray. But what about the rest of the population? Don’t they have a risk, too?
My spin: Any time your doctor says you need an X-ray, ask why. Is the X-ray going to make a difference? Do I really need it? Can the diagnosis be made without one?
If your doctor says yes, then forget the X-ray and depend on the doctor’s clinical judgment. That’s the safest way to go. Stay well.
Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WNED.