As of this morning, my mother's still in the hospital, still waiting for the barium to leave her system so she can have the CT scans she needs to diagnose what's wrong. I guess they'll keep trying every day, but in the meantime she has to stay there: and once she has a diagnosis, she'll have to stay long enough for them to treat it.
The irony here is pretty obvious: the test she had the day before she went into the hospital, and which had nothing to do with the apparent cause of her hospitalization, is keeping her from being treated promptly. The efforts of one set of providers to care for her have stymied another set of providers, who also want to care for her.
I wonder how often this happens, how often medicine trips over its own feet, so to speak. We all know about the most horrible cases: thalidomide given for morning sickness causing profound birth defects, for instance. But I wonder how often there are quieter, more personal stories like my mother's, seemingly insignificant ones that don't make the news. Of course, if Mom's condition is really nothing worse than pneumonia -- as serious as that is -- the delay will be nothing but an annoyance. But her doctors are trying to rule out a cancer recurrence. In someone my mother's age, cancer spreads slowly, but in a younger person, could an annoying delay because of a previous test make a significant difference in treatment outcomes?
When I was talking to my father the other day, he mentioned the recent news about possible links between CT scans and cancer:
A new study in the journal Radiology points out that the radiation from a full-body CT scan may actually raise the risk of cancer as it's trying to detect it. They looked at people who were exposed to radiation from atomic bombs in Japan during World War II in amounts equivalent to a full-body CT scan.Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987. In 1992, she had a stroke. In 2003, she was successfully treated for Stage-1 lung cancer. Last year, she had surgery to repair an abdominal aneursym, following a series of scans to track the increasing size of that aneurysm.
They estimate that one full-body CT scan at the age of 45 increases the risk of cancer by one in 1200. Not a huge risk. But if that same person gets the same scan every year until age 75, the risk of cancer goes up to one in 50. That's a big risk.
I'm not sure how many CT scans she's had, but she's had a lot. And they've done what they were supposed to: she's survived cancer twice, and the AAA was repaired before anything awful happened. Her doctors caught the lung cancer at Stage 1 -- when it was still treatable entirely with surgery -- specifically because they'd been scanning every cell of her body every year since her breast cancer. (Breast cancer as blessing: who knew?) If she hadn't gone in for a routine scan, we wouldn't have known about the lung cancer until it was too late.
She's benefitted enormously from medical technology, but now I find myself wondering if there are ways in which she's been harmed, too. And in the meantime, we're waiting for that stubborn barium to go away, so she can finally have, yet again, another CT scan.