Thermography vs. Mammography: What is the best option?
by Alycia Policani
Concerns over breast cancer have crossed all our minds, especially if you are a woman, at least once in our lives. We are constantly bombarded by images of women fighting breast cancer, pleas for donations by various organizations to combat the disease, and have a whole month devoted to stomping it out of existence. But what, if any, significant strides have been made to aid in the early detection of this disease in the past 10, 20 or even 30 years? It seems that the current answer has been breast mammography. But do mammograms really aid in early detection?
The fact of the matter is that mammography is a study of anatomy. It looks at breast structure. When a tumor has grown large enough (about four billion cells) and dense enough to block an x-ray beam, it produces an image on the x-ray plate and therefore can be detected by the radiologist. It can take years for a tumor to grow to this size, so it is difficult for mammograms to aid in early detection. In the past several years the sensitivity of mammograms has improved with digital imagery and now 3D mammography, allowing for a clearer, more precise picture. This is certainly a great benefit, but if you are under the age of 50 or have dense breast tissue, mammography can be limited in mass detection.
Breast thermography on the other hand, is a test of physiology. It does not look at anatomy or structure, it reads infra-red heat radiating from the surface of the body. The first use of thermography came in 1957 when R. Lawson discovered that skin temperature over a cancer in the breast was higher than that of normal tissue. Cancer cells produce something called angioneogenic factors which aid in establishing blood flow to the tumor. Increased blood flow means increased heat. Because physiologic changes always predate structural changes, sometimes by many years, breast thermography does aid in early detection. The earlier the indication of abnormality, the earlier the intervention and treatment, leading to better outcomes. Plus, because the change in physiology detected by breast thermography occurs prior to the development of the mass, the physician can start a patient on a plan that might just change that physiology before it develops into a mass.
The bottom line is that neither mammography nor thermography can diagnose breast cancer. They are simply diagnostic tests that show a possible disease process and initiate further exploration. Many studies conducted on thousands of women around the world have proven thermography’s role in the early detection and monitoring of abnormal breast physiology and the establishment of risk factors that may lead to the development or existence of cancer. In a large U.S. study, looking at 37,050 women, breast thermography was able to identify 56 cancers per 1,000 thermograms. This is 10 times higher than the BCDDP studies in which only 5.6 cancers per 1,000 mammograms were detected. Another large study in France found 73 percent accuracy in the diagnosis of 486 breast cancer patients using breast thermography. Worldwide retrospective studies have found thermograms were positive in a minimum of 71 percent and maximum of 93 percent of patients with breast cancer. Additionally, an abnormal thermogram is 10 times more significant as a future risk indicator for breast cancer than first order family history of the disease. A persistently abnormal thermogram carries with it a 22 times higher risk of future breast cancer.
That all being said, mammograms and thermograms are not antagonistic. They are looking at structure and function, respectively. It’s comparing apples to oranges. They are not competitive procedures and it is the untrained clinician that views them as such. The procedures should be viewed as complimentary and every woman should have both procedures, when its appropriate. As always, an integrative, preventative approach to health is what provides for the best outcomes for the health of the patient. Thermography has undergone extensive research since the 1950’s and the FDA approved thermography as an adjunctive diagnostic breast cancer screening procedure in 1982. Another great thing about thermography is that you can start screening early, age 20 and have the exam yearly. This aids in the earliest detection of negative changes within the breast tissue. Even more importantly, because it detects those early, subtle changes in physiology, it gives you the time to work with your physician on changing the risk factors, lifestyle choices, behaviors and hormonal imbalances that lead to an increased risk of developing breast cancer and therefore preventing the disease. What a concept.
Dr. Alycia Policani is a naturopathic physician at Evergreen Naturopathic in Spokane. For more information, call 509-755-5100 or visit EvergreenNaturopathic.com.
Insight Thermal Imaging is the only recognized center in the Spokane area, providing critical gray scale and full spectrum color images. Call 509-315-4154 or visit InsightThermography.com for more information. To learn more about thermal imaging and recognized centers visit iact-org.org.