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How to Read a PET Scan Report: Decoding Common Terminology

How to Read a PET Scan Report

Your guide to understanding common terminology in your PET scan report.

A PET scan is a highly detailed medical imaging test. Your doctor might request a PET scan to diagnose or monitor the treatment of conditions and illnesses including blood flow issues, brain diseases, cancer and heart ailments. For instance, a PET scan can help your healthcare team discover, identify and correctly stage many types of cancer.

When you have access to your medical records, like your PET scan images and report, you can advocate for your health from a position of understanding and control. You’re also not waiting anxiously on a follow-up appointment with your doctor to get your results. A 2023 Leger study revealed more than half of patients experience ‘scanxiety’ when waiting on medical results.

In North America, having access to your medical records is the law. In the U.S., access is regulated under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In Canada, the national Privacy Act outlines access for everyone but since health is a provincial responsibility access is enacted at the provincial level. In Ontario, it’s governed by the Personal Health Information Protection Act (PHIPA).

Having access to your PET images and radiology report is only the first step toward understanding the results. Medical reports are still full of complex terminology. This article explains some of the common medical terms and abbreviations you may find in your PET report, so you can be fully informed and more prepared for conversations with your healthcare team.

What does PET stand for?

PET is short for positron emission tomography. PET scans are considered nuclear medicine procedures because they use a radioactive substance to create images of your organs and tissues. After the radiotracer is absorbed in your body, it emits positrons that are recorded by sensitive cameras as you move through the donut-shaped array.

The recordings are compiled into colorful images for the radiologist to interpret. Then both the images and radiology report will be sent to your referring doctor, who will discuss your PET results with you at a follow-up appointment.

Often used in conjunction with other imaging tests, like CT scans or MRIs, PET scans can assess both the function and structure of organs and tissues.

What are coronal, sagittal and axial planes?

PET scanners capture images along 3 different planes to provide the radiologist with a 360° view of your body’s internal structures and organs:

  • Coronal: The face-on view, which creates images of the front and back halves of your body.
  • Sagittal: The side view, which provides lateral images of the left and right halves of the body.
  • Axial: Also called the transverse view, this horizontal view creates images of the top and bottom halves of your body.

What is a radiotracer?

The radioactive sugar substance used in PET scans is called a radiotracer. Injected, inhaled or ingested, the radiotracer travels through your body and gathers in cells that require a lot of energy. Fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) is a common radiotracer.

Your PET scan report will indicate which radiotracer was used and how much was administered, at what site and by which method.

What does FDG uptake mean?

FDG uptake describes how much radiotracer was ‘taken up’ by cells. Different cell types have unique metabolic needs, so FDG will cluster at varying concentrations in different areas of the body. Your report might contain the following phrases:

  • No uptake: FDG does not cluster.
  • Normal uptake: your brain, liver and spleen all require a lot of glucose, so it’s common to have higher FDG uptake in those areas.
  • Mild or low-grade uptake: might be seen in normal tissue like fat, but also might indicate an area needing further investigation.
  • Abnormal uptake: glucose absorption is at an unusual level for the area. Cancer cells, for instance, use a lot of energy.

What is standard uptake value?

Wondering what all those numbers are in your PET scan report? Standard uptake value (SUV) is a ratio defining the activity of the radiotracer in a specific area of a PET scan image at a specific point in time. It is also known as the dose uptake ratio.

An increase in SUV represents an increase in metabolic activity, which sometimes—although not always—indicates aggressive growth, like cancer cells. Generally speaking, metabolic activity is considered:

  • “Low intensity” at <5 SUV
  • “Moderate” at 5-10 SUV
  • “Intense” at 10-15 SUV
  • “Very intense” at >15 SUV

The SUV value is helpful for interpretation purposes, especially when comparing multiple PET or other scans over time. The increase or decrease in SUV can give the radiologist a clear understanding of how conditions or treatments are progressing.

What’s a Deauville Score?

The Deauville score or scale (DS) is an internationally recommended standard for reporting FDG uptake in treatment trials for Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas. Like the SUV, it measures FDG uptake, but the Deauville score is a visual interpretation that compares uptake in affected areas to uptake in the liver and mediastinum (the space between the lungs containing the esophagus, heart, large blood vessels and trachea).

The Deauville score runs from 1 to 5:

  1. No uptake
  2. Slight uptake, equal or below uptake in the mediastinum
  3. Uptake above the mediastinum but below the liver
  4. Uptake slightly or moderately above the liver
  5. Noticeably increased uptake compared to the liver

When it comes to the Deauville score, a lower number is better. 1 and 2 are both considered complete responses. 3 is adequate, while 4 and 5 are considered inadequate.

What’s a lesion?

A lesion is any area of damaged tissue, organ or bone. You can have lesions anywhere in your body. They might emerge from disease or injury, and can present in many different ways, such as:

  • Calcifications: small areas of hardened tissue
  • Cysts: thin-walled sacs filled with fluid
  • Masses: unexpected clusters of tissue
  • Nodules: small lumps (>1 cm) of tissue different from their surroundings
  • Tumors: spots of abnormal cell growth

Depending on their cause and presentation, lesions might be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Is unremarkable good or bad?

In medical terminology, “unremarkable” is a good thing: it means your PET scan reports no abnormal findings.

Your PET scan report is one place you actually want to be found unremarkable.

How PocketHealth can help you understand your PET scan report

PocketHealth gives you fast and easy access to view, share and store your CT scan results, often before your follow-up appointment with your doctor.

If you are unfamiliar with certain medical terms, Report Reader will provide definitions to help make your report easier to understand. Report Reader also spotlights any follow-up recommendations, so you can keep tabs on your own health and always know what’s coming next. Access your records here.

“With Report Reader, I get explanations for words [in my report] that I don’t understand. I can now discuss my health with my family doctor with more confidence and have a better understanding of what is going on.”
– PocketHealth Patient

The importance of understanding your PET scan results

PET scan images reveal the inner structures of your body and how well they are functioning, making it a valuable tool when it comes to diagnosing or monitoring the treatment of many diseases.

The more you understand what’s going on in your body, the more thorough your medical follow-up conversations can be. Having access to your PET scan results gives you the information you need to ask more pertinent questions and make more informed choices.

PocketHealth makes that access easy and secure, so you can be confident and in control along every step of your healthcare journey.

How PocketHealth works

Learn more about how to use PocketHealth to securely access and share your PET scan results.

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