Did radiation protect President Carter from pancreatic cancer?

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones

What do former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Gifford-Jones have in common? They were both born the same year and have remarkable staying power! But Carter has lived under the shadow of pancreatic cancer all his life. His father, brother, and two sisters died of this disease and his mother also suffered from it. Carter has also lived through metastatic melanoma, a skin cancer that had spread to his liver and brain. How did he do it?

Rod Adams, an atomic energy expert, has said that moderate radiation exposure may have helped to protect the former president from developing pancreatic cancer.

During the nuclear meltdown at Chalk River in 1952, Carter was a naval officer working on the secret nuclear program. He was among those dispatched to help dismantle the reactor. This required working in a high radiation field for 90 seconds at a time. The President claimed his urine was radioactive for six months afterwards.

Then in 2011, the New York Times reported that Carter had been exposed to CT scans every six months. The purpose was to see if any cancer lesions had appeared in his pancreas. Doctors decided to stop these examinations, concerned that radiation was increasing the risk of cancer.

It’s commonly understood that radiation causes cancer. Even school children studying two-time Nobel laurate Marie Curie know her research on radium contributed to her death at age 66. But is exposure to radiation always dangerous?

One fact is certain. Jimmy Carter is still alive, his now 30 post-presidential years taken up in humanitarian projects. So, Adams asks, “Is it possible that President Carter’s lifetime exposure to radiation was the kind of moderate dose that has been shown to stimulate his human defensive and repair mechanisms?”

Why does this idea interest us? It goes against everything that been said about radiation for years.

This column has stressed that radiation is like an elephant. It never forgets the total amount received during a lifetime. That’s why readers are advised not to ask the doctor, “Can I have an X-ray to help find the reason for unexplained abdominal pain?” Or, “Could an X-ray be ordered to make sure a sprained ankle is not broken?” It’s good to avoid even low-dose dental X-rays that aren’t needed.

CT scans of the pancreas every six months seem outrageous. A CT scan of the abdomen delivers 500 times more radiation than a routine X-ray of the lungs and 1,000 times that of dental X-rays.

It makes no sense to have an MRI, if an ultrasound, which is radiation free, provides the same information.

But is Rod Adams right, that a small to moderate amount of radiation could be beneficial? It’s always worth pausing and opening the mind to listen to experts who have researched the subject.

Rod Adam’s article triggered interesting responses. One reader wrote, so long as “the assumption remains that the lowest radiation is hazardous, we will continue spending billions to protect the public against less radiation that it is receiving from nature.”

Another reader noted, “About 150 United States military personnel, about 170 Canadian military personnel and about 20 construction company employees joined the 862 staff members at Chalk River to implement the clean-up.” But little was done to study the long-term health of these individuals.

Jimmy Carter believes his longevity is due to never having smoked. This was a good decision. But more studies are needed to learn if radiation exposure may have protected him from pancreatic cancer.

In 2015, he won the melanoma battle, adding to his good fortune. But the question remains, what’s the right approach to radiation exposure? And the answer seems to be consistent with Gifford-Jones’ common sense advice, “all things in moderation.”

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at contact-us@docgiff.com.

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