In whatever part of the body excess of heat or cold is felt, disease is there to be discovered.
– Hippocrates, 480 B.C.
My Take on Thermography
Many clients have asked for my opinion on mammograms and whether or not thermograms are a safer option. Unfortunately, there is no one answer I can give to everyone since family history, breast health history, age , and other risk factors (smoking, hormone use, environmental exposure, diet, lifestyle, etc) are all uniquely contributing factors.
What I can do is offer my perspective, provide some basic information. and point you to a list of things you can do to improve breast health and lower risk.
Ultimately, any screening decisions should be made with the help of your physician, but you can be a more proactive participant in this discussion with some education.
Mammography Has Its Place
Mammography is currently the gold standard for breast cancer screening. Unfortunately, it also exposes the breasts to harmful radiation and has limited efficacy in women who are on hormone replacement therapy, or who have enhanced, large, dense or fibrocystic breasts. In most cases it also cannot show areas near the chest wall.
These lifestyle and risk differences do not detract from the accuracy of thermography, so thermography may offer an advantage when combined with other screening methods to improve surveillance. Personally I have chosen to utilize mammography less often and do yearly thermograms because I have fibrocystic breasts.
The biggest criticism of mammograms is the radiation exposure. After all, radiation does cause cancer, so how does it make sense to irradiate breast tissue, as well as surrounding tissues (heart, coronary arteries, lungs, etc)? To put it into perspective, the amount of radiation exposure from a mammogram is approximately what you’d receive on a jet flight across the country. Still, there are genetic and other individual risk factors that can make this a very significant exposure, especially since the radiation exposure is concentrated in specific areas.
Another criticism is the number of cancers detected by mammogram that may have resolved on their own without costly treatments that carry their own risks. We all make cancer cells every day. Since most of us have never been diagnosed with cancer, this means our immune systems “cure” cancer every day.
Lastly, there is the controversy over the last several years as to how often and at what age mammograms should be done.
All of these are good talking points to include in a discussion with your healthcare provider as you make the individual decision of when and how often mammograms make sense for you.
What Is A Thermogram?
At a simple level, thermography has a wide application. It is performed using a highly sensitive infrared camera to detect subtle heat differentials. Think about the paranormal TV shows you may have seen when the camera crew is looking for a creature in the woods using a “heat sensor.” Or maybe an inspection you may have had before weather proofing your home. This is basic thermography at work.
The Argument for an Alternative
When it comes to breast health, the heat differentials detected by a thermograph allows us to pinpoint areas of increased blood circulation and metabolic activity. So why is that important?
Because cancerous tumors are known to promote the growth of new vessels to “feed” themselves (angiogenesis), they are associated with an ever-increasing pattern of rising local temperature. Digital infrared imaging (thermography) is extremely sensitive to these temperature variations and can therefore be a valuable tool in early cancer detection.
Adjunct to Mammography
Most thermography proponents consider it to be an adjunct to mammography and other forms of breast cancer detection, NOT a competitor. This complementary view arises from the basic differences in the technologies: structural imaging tools (mammography, ultrasound, MRI) capture anatomical images, and thermography captures metabolic images. Each of these types of detection tools have their advantages with different types of cancers and in different populations. For instance, not all tumors are visible on a mammogram, and not all tumors are associated with a high level of blood vessel activity.
Because tumors can take 8-10 years to grow to a size detectable by mammogram, thermograms may alert you to a need for preventive intervention. It can be argued that regular thermography is one of the best ways to assess risk and maintain a proactive awareness of your level of breast health.
For more breast health recommendations, see our post on maintaining or regaining breast health.
As I said in my introduction to this post, all of your diagnostic decisions should be made together with a doctor you trust. If you decide that a thermogram is right for you, it’s important to establish a baseline thermogram to start. An initial thermogram should then be followed up with another in 3-6 months to determine if heat patterns are stable, or if there is a progressive increase in blood flow/heat to a particular area, suggestive of a growing tumor.
A Local, Trusted Practitioner
We are fortunate to have a trusted, experienced thermogram provider here in the Columbus area – Dena E. Johnston RN, MSN, CCT of Ohio Infrared Health, Breast & Body Thermography.
For more information on the services Dena provides, see descriptions, pricing, and FAQs on her website.
If you have concerns about paying for this imaging, Dena suggests checking out the assistance offered by The United Breast Cancer Foundation (UBCF). For a $5 application fee, the UBCF will assist with up to $150 of the cost of your imaging, depending on their current available funding.
Bonus Time! Some Thermo-History
The FDA approved thermography as an adjunctive diagnostic breast cancer screening procedure in 1982. Interestingly enough, there’s a more natural history to this diagnostic tool. The first recorded use of thermobiological diagnostics can be found in the writings of Hippocrates around 480 BC. A mud slurry spread over the patient was observed for areas that would dry first and was thought to indicate underlying organ or tissue pathology.
Resources Mentioned in this Post
This was quite a bit of information to digest, so just to make sure that the valuable links and points of contact don’t get lost in the shuffle, here they are in one short list:
- Dena Johnston – our local, trusted practitioner at Ohio Infrared Health, Breast & Body Thermography
- Assistance from The United Breast Cancer Foundation