by Joel Shuler
To maximize preventive care for breast health, which is best: mammography or thermography? Increasingly, the answer is both.
Conventional medical care providers continue to promote annual mammograms for women over age 40 as the best way to detect breast cancer. There are, however, more providers in the traditional medical community who acknowledge that thermography can play an important role as both an early detection tool and a preventive care tool for overall breast health.
“I see clear signs that the traditional medical community is beginning to recognize that we all have a role to play when it comes to breast health and cancer prevention,” said Michelle Hart, owner of DITI Imaging in San Antonio and Austin who won her own battle with breast cancer. “That’s a good thing because it’s not a matter of either/or— it’s much more about working together to fully equip women, and men, with the best tools and information for prevention and early detection.”
What’s the Difference?
Most women have a good understanding of mammography, which involves creating an image of the breast through X-ray technology and breast compression. X-ray images can reveal early signs of breast cancer, such as dense calcium deposits. Mammography focuses on abnormalities in the physical or anatomical structures within the breast.
Thermography focuses on physiological changes in temperature and vascular activity. Infrared imaging is used to detect heat and analyze vascular activity. Thermography is based on the principle that chemical and blood vessel activity is higher and produces more heat in pre-cancerous and cancerous tissue. Pre-cancerous and cancerous masses need an abundant supply of nutrients to grow, and this increased blood flow and vascular activity in breasts or other areas of the body can be detected and monitored through thermography.
Mammography remains the “gold standard” for breast cancer detection among the conventional medical community. Standard preventive guidance for all women includes an annual clinical breast exam starting at age 20 and annual mammogram beginning at age 40 (earlier for women considered “high risk”). “Getting a high-quality screening mammogram and having a clinical breast exam on a regular basis are the most effective ways to detect breast cancer early,” says the National Cancer Institute website (www.cancer.gov).
But mammography has its critics, including those concerned about the potential harmful effects of repeated radiation exposure. Questions have been raised for decades, by researchers and members of the traditional medical community, about the need for mass annual X-ray screenings. The National Cancer Institute has noted potentially harms due to radiation exposure, and a 2006 study published in the British Journal of Radiobiology stated that the type of radiation used in X-ray-based screenings is more carcinogenic than previously believed.
Thermography does not involve radiation or breast compression. It has been an FDA-approved screening procedure to detect breast cancer (in conjunction with mammography) for more than 30 years. Still, many doctors don’t know much about the practice, largely because medical schools don’t teach it. The practice also continues to be dogged by critics who consider it “pseudoscience” and point to exaggerated marketing claims sometimes made by thermography practitioners. Even the FDA issued a “Safety Communication” to the public in 2011 that stated, “ thermography is not a replacement for screening mammography and should not be used by itself to diagnose breast cancer.”
A Collaborative Approach
Thermography advocates say they’ve never called for thermography to replace mammography. In fact, advocates have long supported a collaborative approach. The American College of Clinical Thermology (ACCT) describes thermography as “an adjunct to the appropriate use of mammography,” not a competitor. The ACCT website states that thermography “has the ability to identify patients at the highest level of risk and actually increase the effective usage of mammography and ultrasound.”
Adding thermography to the breast health toolkit is important, advocates say, because the procedure can detect heat and vascular abnormalities years before being discovered by any other procedure, including mammography.
“Thermography can detect physiologic changes associated with a cancer while it is still at a cellular level—before it becomes visible on a mammogram,” says Dr. Thomas Hudson, a diagnostic radiologist and independent women’s imaging consultant based at the Women’s Center for Radiology in Orlando, Fla. Hudson is also the author of Journey to Hope, written to help women understand the intricacies of breast health and breast cancer.
Hudson says thermography has preventive care benefits beyond early breast cancer detection. He notes on his Journey to Hope website that it can indicate an imbalance in estrogen levels associated with higher breast cancer risk and can detect lymphatic congestion, which can be a precursor to disease.
“In short, thermography is a way to monitor breast health, not just a way to detect breast disease,” he says. “Thermography offers a woman the chance to become aware of worrisome physiological changes before there is a diagnosable cancer—which is when riskreduction strategies such as diet, exercise and stress reduction are most effective.”
Hudson acknowledges that the conventional medical community has been slow to embrace thermography, but he believes that will change.
“As medicine becomes more integrative, many of these issues will disappear. Thermography will become more accepted as paradigms change and perspectives broaden,” he says. “Thermography doesn’t replace mammography. It adds a much-needed piece to the puzzle, providing risk information and possible early warning that mammography cannot.”
To learn more about thermography, visit the American College of Clinical Thermology at www.thermologyonline.org, or visit www.breastthermography.com. For more information about DITI Imaging in San Antonio and Austin, visit www.ditiimaging.com. For more information about Dr. Thomas Hudson and his book, Journey to Hope, visit www.yourjourneytohope.com. Joel Shuler is the publisher of Natural Awakenings San Antonio.
• Uses X-rays to produce an image of the breast. Areas with abnormalities need to be dense
enough to be seen.
• Focuses on structural imaging and has the ability to locate an area of suspicious tissue.
• Early detection method, when breast tissue abnormality becomes evident.
• Cannot diagnose cancer. Can detect some tumors in the pre-invasive stage.
• For most women with private insurance, annual mammography important to contact the
mammogram facility and your insurance
carrier to confirm insurance coverage. Also, Medicare pays for annual screening for all
female beneficiaries who are age 40 or older.
• Uses infrared imaging technology to detect heat and vascular activity.
• Focuses on physiologic changes, changes in temperatures and vascular
activity that could indicate abnormal activity in an area of the breast (or
other part of the body).
• Early detection method, when abnormal vascular patterns and temperature
changes are detected.
• Cannot diagnose cancer. May provide an early signal that changes are
occurring in breast tissue.
• Generally not covered by health insurance plans. Some plans may offer
some out-of-network coverage, but you should check with your plan
administrator first. Thermography screenings are eligible expenses for
health care flexible spending accounts and Health Savings Accounts. The
cost of breast thermography screening averages $150-$200.