Because it covers the whole body, it might not look at any given part of the body as closely as an MRI or CT scan would when it’s used to examine a particular organ or area of the body for a specific reason.
Who should consider getting a full-body scan?
There’s no data to support the average person getting one, especially if you don’t have any symptoms or an increased personal risk for cancer.
That said, for patients with certain conditions, we do recommend the use of full-body scans here for screening and monitoring at MD Anderson. Those include:
LiFraumeni syndrome: a rare genetic mutation that puts people at much higher risk of developing multiple cancers over their lifetimes
multiple myeloma: a blood cancer that can cause bone lesions all around the body
All of the other targeted screening tools we have in place are the ones best designed to catch those specific cancers. A mammogram, for instance, is still the best way to screen for breast cancer because sometimes those lesions are very, very small, and they might not show up on a whole-body scan.
So, if you’re wondering if you should get a whole-body scan, the better question to ask yourself might be, “Am I up to date on all of my preventive screenings?”
If you’re a smoker or used to smoke, for instance, and you're over the age of 50, have you had a lung cancer screening? If you’re a woman over the age of 40, when was your last mammogram? If you’re over the age of 45, when was your last colonoscopy? These are all better questions to be asking yourself than, “Do I need a full-body scan for cancer?”
What are the risks and benefits of full-body scans?
For the average person with no risk factors for cancer, I don’t see any benefits. But there are a lot of risks.
For one thing, full-body scans often pick up things that are considered incidental, like benign liver tumors or nodules on your thyroid or adrenal glands. These findings could easily lead to costly workups and extra scans — or even unnecessary surgeries or biopsies — that come with additional risks of their own. They don’t necessarily result in anything useful.
Full-body scans can also cause unnecessary anxiety. For instance, if you’re told you have a cyst on your pancreas, but nobody really knows what that means since you don’t have any symptoms, that can cause chronic anxiety if you need to have a yearly scan going forward. You’ll always be thinking about it.
How do you weigh the risks and benefits for yourself?
I’d say to discuss it with your doctor. If you have a family history of cancer, for instance, it might make more sense for you to get genetic testing for specific genetic mutations, like the BRCA1 and 2 mutations. That’s a much more effective way of determining the best screening tools.
So many considerations are based on your family history and your personal history, that taking any one tool and trying to apply it to everyone doesn’t make any sense. That’s why it’s so important to get your medical advice from health care professionals, not social media.
What’s the most important thing you want people to know about full-body scans?
I’m not saying that full-body scans are terrible in general. They can be a very useful tool for certain patients with particular cancers or syndromes, both to assess and stage their cancers and to monitor their condition. But their uses are specific to certain diseases, so they should only be used by patients who actually need them.