The Perfect Combo

An advanced PET-CT scan benefits both physicians and patients

In the 1970s, John Lennon and Paul McCartney proved to be great songwriters on their own. But what they did as a team in the 60s was on a whole other level.

If there can be such a thing as a Lennon-McCartney of the medical imaging world, then the PET-CT is it.

Both of these imaging procedures provide essential results on their own. Together they make a significant impact on the continuum of cancer care.

Strength of Two

“The idea behind the PET-CT is a simple one but it makes a huge difference,” explains radiation oncologist John Pablo, MD. “It takes the strengths of the two machines and merges them together.”

PET stands for positron emission tomography. It is a non-invasive diagnostic procedure while allows radiologists to target areas of high or low metabolic activity. The PET scan is used to look at heart muscle activity, seizure activity and cancer cells.

CT stands for computed tomography. It is similar to an X-ray machine, yet instead of one-dimensional images, the CT takes multiple axial images that are combined through a computer to produce a detailed look at the body’s anatomy.

“The CT is excellent at determining structure—the muscles, bones, vessels, and so on,” Dr. Pablo says. “The PET shows activity—areas of cellular turnover or cellular growth. Both are an integral part of cancer care. Not all patients will need a PET-CT. But for certain patients, the combination gives us a much more accurate diagnosis.”

How It Works

The PET-CT serves three purposes:

  • Staging: accurately finding where the cancer is located and putting the patient at the appropriate stage
  • Treatment planning: localizing areas of cancer in order to most accurately deliver the radiation
  • Surveillance: for some survivors, the PET-CT is used to ensure that the cancer has not come back

“Sometimes after treatment, there can be abnormalities on a CT scan,” Dr. Pablo says. “This could be scar tissue, inflammation or active cancer. The PET can determine what those abnormalities are.”

The actual scan itself is painless, non-invasive and only takes about 30 minutes at the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion. Because of its importance in treatment planning, cancer patients in Bluffton and Hilton Head, SC, had to travel to Savannah to access the PET-CT in the past. With the opening of the St. Joseph's/Candler Bluffton Campus at Buckwalter Place, patients in the Lowcountry can get this essential scan done closer to home.

Patients do need to plan to spend a couple of hours at the facility on exam day. Before the exam, a technician will inject a very small amount of a radioactive sugar-like substance through an IV. This substance is what travels through the body to bind to possible cancer cells. During this time, the patient is asked to lie still.

Great Accuracy

The results of the scan come to physicians in sharp, highly-detailed images. From the PET, Dr. Pablo receives valuable information about a growth, even if it is not cancerous. From the CT, he can learn about the location, size and shape of various abnormalities.

Then it is time to plan.

“We are able to design treatment with great accuracy,” Dr. Pablo says. “The sophistication of the imaging helps us prepare the most effective care. And because the scans are combined in one session, it is more convenient and comfortable for the patient. It’s a technological win-win.”

The PET-CT in St. Joseph's/Candler’s Bluffton Campus at Buckwalter Place is the only one in the Bluffton/Hilton Head area. To learn more about cancer imaging services at the LCRP, visit

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