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CT scan for neuroendocrine tumours (NETs)

A CT scan can show up a neuroendocrine tumour (NET) and see whether it has spread anywhere else in your body.

A CT scan is a test that uses x-rays and a computer to create detailed pictures of the inside of your body. It takes pictures from different angles. The computer puts them together to make a 3 dimensional (3D) image.  

CT (or CAT) stands for computed (axial) tomography.

Photo of a CT scanner

You usually have a CT scan in the x-ray (radiology) department as an outpatient. A radiographer operates the scanner. The whole appointment can take up to an hour and a half depending on which part of your body they are scanning. 

Why you might have a CT scan

A CT scan is a very common cancer test. It can give a very accurate picture of where an abnormal area such as a NET is and how big it is. It also shows how close the area that needs to be treated is to major body organs.

Preparation for a CT scan

Some CT scans need special preparation beforehand.

For most scans, you have a drink or an injection of contrast medium, or both. This is a dye that shows up body tissues more clearly on the scan. You have the injection through a small thin tube (cannula) in your arm. The tube is left in place until after your scan, in case you have any problems after having the injection.

CT scans of the abdomen

If you are having a CT scan of your abdomen, you might be asked:

  • to drink a liquid contrast medium some time before the scan
  • to drink more of the liquid contrast or water in the x-ray department
  • not to eat or drink after midnight the night before the scan (this is for a CT scan of the inside of the large bowel, called CT colonography)

You usually have the contrast medium by injection and also as a drink. This helps to show up the gut (digestive system) more clearly in the scan.

CT scans of the chest

You might have an injection of the contrast medium during the scan. This is to help show up the tissues close to the area containing cancer, for example, blood vessels. It may help to show whether cancer can be removed with surgery or not.

CT scans of the chest are also called thoracic CT scans.

Pelvic CT scans

If you are having a CT scan of the pelvis, you might be asked:

  • not to eat or drink for some time before the scan
  • to have an injection of contrast medium

Occasionally, for a rectal scan, you need to have an enema of contrast medium. This shows up on the x-ray and makes the outline of the bowel show up more on the scan. It might make you constipated. Your first couple of bowel motions will be white, but there are no other side effects.

What happens

When you arrive

The radiographer might ask you to change into a hospital gown. You should remove jewellery and other metal objects, such as hair clips around the area being scanned. Metal interferes with the images produced by the scanner.

In the scanning room

When you’re ready, the radiographer or assistant takes you into the scanning room. A CT scanning machine is large and shaped like a doughnut.

You might have an injection of contrast medium through a small tube (cannula) in your arm. You may:

  • feel hot and flushed for a minute or two
  • have a metallic taste in your mouth
  • feel like you’re passing urine but you aren’t – this feeling is common and passes quickly

Tell the radiographer if you feel anxious or claustrophobic about having a scan. 

Having the CT scan

You usually lie down on the machine couch on your back. Once you’re in the right position, the radiographer leaves the room to protect them from the radiation. They can see you on a TV screen or through a window from the control room. You can talk to each other through an intercom.

The couch slowly slides backwards and forwards through the hole of the scanner. The machine takes pictures as you move through it. 

The scan is painless but can be uncomfortable because you have to stay still. Tell your radiographers if you’re getting stiff and need to move.

During the scan

You’ll hear a whirring noise from the scanner.

The radiographer might ask you to hold your breath at times.

When the scan is over, the radiographer comes back into the room and lowers the couch so you can get up.

The 2-minute video shows what happens when you have a CT scan.

After your CT scan

You stay in the department for about 15 to 30 minutes if you had an injection of the dye. This is in case it makes you feel unwell, which is rare.

The radiographer removes the cannula from your arm before you go home.

You should be able to go home, back to work or the ward soon afterwards. You can eat and drink normally.  

Possible risks

A CT scan is a safe test for most people but like all medical tests it has some possible risks. Your doctor and radiographer make sure the benefits of having the test outweigh these risks.

Allergic reaction

Rarely, people have an allergic reaction to the contrast medium. This most often starts with weakness, sweating and difficulty breathing. Tell your radiographer immediately if you feel unwell. 

Contrast medium

There's a risk that the contrast medium will leak outside the vein. This can cause swelling and pain in your arm but it’s rare.

Radiation

Exposure to radiation during a CT scan can slightly increase your risk of developing cancer in the future. Talk to your doctor if this worries you.

Pregnancy

Pregnant women should only have CT scans in emergencies. Contact the department as soon as you can before the scan if you are pregnant or think that you might be.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks. 

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them. Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

You might have contact details for a specialist nurse who you can contact for information if you need to. It may help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For information and support, you can contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Other tests

Most people have several tests to diagnose a NET. You can find out what other tests you might have in your specific NET section.

Last reviewed: 
15 Jan 2019
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