Paracelsus, Renaissance alchemist and medical pioneer said, more or less, that everything is poisonous, including medicine. Only the dose determines whether a substance does harm—or maybe some good.
Flash forward to the modern age and the same adage applies to the medical use of radiation to detect illness and to treat cancer. The New York Times investigates errors that led to lethal overdoses of radiation during cancer therapy. The Times reports in detail on the cases of a 43-year-old man who died after a fatal series of radiation treatments for tongue cancer and the death of a 32-year-old woman who received too much radiation during 27 separate sessions for breast cancer. The radiation overdoses left her with a painful hole in her chest that wouldn't heal.
Nearly two-thirds of cancer patients are treated with radiation over the course of their illnesses. Cancers of the lung, prostate and breast make up the majority of cancers treated.
Aside from catastrophic doses of radiation due to mistakes, the average American receives a lot more radiation from medical tests today—seven times more than in 1980, the Times reports.
The advent of CT scanners and their popularity with doctors are big reasons why, as NPR's Richard Knox reported a few months back. The increase in radiation exposure may be leading to tens of thousands more cancer cases each year.
Problems with CT scanners being used to diagnose strokes at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and hospitals elsewhere prompted an Food and Drug Administration investigation and recommendations for stricter safety measures to avoid trouble.
Accidents are uncommon and, for the most part, doctors' use of radiation to find and treat disease has proved a valuable advance in medical care. But the potential for harm and the cases of unintended injuries to patients serve as reminders for vigilance.