If your doctor suspects prostate cancer, nuclear medicine imaging may be used to make a diagnosis. Nuclear medicine, a type of imaging that uses radioactive materials, is a useful tool to detect and also treat prostate cancer.
It is a form of diagnostic imaging that helps radiologists determine the stage of cancer. Its second role, if necessary, is as a therapy to improve survival, decrease pain and increase overall quality of life. Finally, if the patient does require treatment, nuclear medicine may be used to gauge how the cancer is responding.
At Yale Medicine, we are committed to using the most up-to-date, advanced and accurate scanning equipment while making sure our patients are comfortable and receive the best care possible.
How does nuclear medicine imaging work?
A safe, small amount of radioactive material called “radiotracer” is injected into your bloodstream, inhaled as a gas or taken orally. The radiotracer travels through your body, releasing gamma rays, and is taken up by different parts of the body, depending on what’s called the “affinity” of the tissue—in other words, what parts of the body it is naturally attracted to.
“In the case of prostate cancer, most of the radiotracers we use have an affinity for bone,” says Lawrence Saperstein, MD, chief of Nuclear Medicine at Yale Medicine. “When prostate cancer spreads, it’s often to the bone. Nuclear medicine is the best way we have of first determining whether or not it has spread and, if so, to which bones.”
What are the risks and benefits of nuclear medicine?
“Nuclear medicine typically involves a very small amount of radioactivity, well below a level considered to pose any risk to patients or others with whom they interact,” Dr. Saperstein says.
The benefit of nuclear medicine is that it can detect the very early spread of prostate cancer, greatly increasing the success of therapy. The cure rate, when prostate cancer is caught in its earliest stages, is very high.
What should a patient undergoing nuclear medicine bone scan for prostate cancer expect?
“At Yale Medicine, we first inject the patient with a small amount of radioactive material, which takes about three hours to be completely taken up by the bones,” Dr. Saperstein says. “Rather than have the patient wait in the exam room for that long, they’re free to leave and explore the hospital atrium or healing garden, where they can eat, read or enjoy music.”
After this period, you are taken to the scanning room, where you'll be asked to lie down and stay still on the exam table for about half an hour as the technologist performs the scan.
When are the results ready?
After the exam is finished, the radiologist looks at the images on a dedicated reading station, studying how the bones are functioning and taking up the radiotracers. The images may be compared with computerized tomography (CT) or other images, if a prior scan was performed.
The radiologist uploads the results into Yale Medicine’s electronic medical records system, where they are available for your doctor to review with the patient at his next visit.
What makes Yale Medicine’s work in nuclear medicine unique?
“We are in the process of bringing a unique prostate cancer imaging agent to Yale Medicine,” Dr. Saperstein says. “Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans with C11 choline will enable us to more accurately characterize the extent of prostate cancer than ever possible. There are currently no other hospitals in the region that are using this technology.”
Beyond Yale Medicine’s commitment to using the most cutting edge, accurate scanning equipment, Dr. Saperstein emphasizes the level of care patients receive from Yale Medicine’s radiologists, technologists and staff.
“I’ve worked in many hospitals, and what I’ve really noticed is how everyone on the staff, throughout the department, goes above and beyond to make sure that patients receive compassionate care. There’s a real dedication to patient well-being and comfort," he says.