About PET/CT Scans

What is PET?

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is rapidly becoming a major diagnostic imaging modality used predominantly in determining the presence and severity of cancers, neurological conditions, and cardiovascular disease. It is currently the most effective way to check for cancer recurrence.

Studies demonstrate that PET offers significant advantages over other forms of imaging such as CT or MRI scans in diagnosing disease. An estimated 800,000 clinical PET patient studies are performed annually around the country.

PET images demonstrate the chemistry of organs and other tissues such as tumors. A radiopharmaceutical, such as FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose), which includes both sugar (glucose) and a radionuclide (a radioactive element) that gives off signals, is injected into the patient and its emissions are measured by a PET scanner.

Value of PET in Oncology

PET is considered particularly effective in identifying whether cancer is present or not, if it has spread, if it is responding to treatment, and if a person is cancer free after treatment. Cancers for which PET is considered particularly effective include:

  • Lung
  • Head and Neck
  • Colorectal
  • Esophageal
  • Lymphoma
  • Melanoma
  • Breast
  • Thyroid
  • Cervical
  • Pancreatic
  • Brain
  • and other less-frequently-occurring cancers

Early Detection: Because PET images biochemical activity, it can accurately characterize a tumor as benign or malignant, thereby avoiding surgical biopsy when the PET scan is negative. Conversely, because a PET scan images the entire body, confirmation of distant metastasis can alter treatment plans in certain cases from surgical intervention to chemotherapy.

Staging of Cancer: PET is extremely sensitive in determining the full extent of disease, especially in lymphoma, malignant melanoma, breast, lung, colon and cervical cancers. Confirmation of metastatic disease allows the physician and patient to more accurately decide how to proceed with the patient’s management.

Checking for recurrences:
PET is currently considered to be the most accurate diagnostic procedure to differentiate tumor recurrences from radiation necrosis or post-surgical changes. Such an approach allows for the development of a more rational treatment plan for the patient.

Assessing the Effectiveness of Chemotherapy: The level of tumor metabolism is compared on PET scans taken before and after a chemotherapy cycle. A successful response seen on a PET scan frequently precedes alterations in anatomy and would therefore be an earlier indicator of tumor response than that seen with other diagnostic modalities.

Combined PET/CT Imaging ~ The Added Advantage

Because PET measures metabolism, as opposed to MRI or CT, which “see” structure, it can be superior to these modalities, particularly in separating tumor from benign lesions, and in differentiating malignant from non-malignant masses such as scar tissue formed from treatments like radiation therapy.

By monitoring glucose metabolism, PET provides very sensitive information regardless of whether a growth within the body is cancerous or not. CT (computed tomography) meanwhile provides detailed information about the location, size, and shape of various lesions but cannot differentiate cancerous lesions from normal structures with the same accuracy as PET. The combined PET/CT scanner at our institute merges PET and CT images together. Every PET/CT scan is reviewed and correlated by a board certified University of Arizona Nuclear Medicine Physician.

Neurological Disease

PET’s ability to measure metabolism also has significant implications in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other neurological conditions, because it can vividly illustrate areas where brain activity differs from the norm.

Alzheimer’s Diagnosis: Until recently, autopsy has been considered the only definitive test for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Recent studies indicate that PET can supply important diagnostic information and confirm an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. When comparing a normal brain versus an AD-affected brain on a PET scan, a distinctive image appears in the area of the AD-affected brain. This pattern is seen very early in the AD course. Conventionally, the confirmation of AD is a long process of elimination that averages between two and three years of diagnostic and cognitive testing. Early diagnosis can provide the patient access to therapies, which are more effective earlier in the disease. PET also is useful in differentiating Alzheimer’s disease from other forms of dementia disorders, such as vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, etc.

Epilepsy: PET is one of the most accurate methods available to localize areas of the brain causing epileptic seizures and to determine if surgery is a treatment option.

Cardiovascular Disease

By measuring both blood flow (perfusion) and metabolic rate within the heart, physicians using PET scans can pinpoint areas of decreased blood flow such as that caused by blockages, and differentiate muscle damage from living muscle, which has inadequate blood flow (myocardial viability). This information is particularly important in patients who have had previous myocardial infarction and who are being considered for a revascularization procedure.

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