Is Thermography a Good Option for Breast Cancer Screening?
Many women looking for an alternative to mammography wonder if breast thermography works for breast cancer screening.
Unlike mammograms, which look at the anatomy of the breast for lumps or masses, thermography is a physiological test: it reads the infrared heat radiating from the surface of the breast. An elevated temperature is a marker for some type of pathology, such as cancer, infection, or other condition.
Thermography advocates cite studies suggesting this technique can detect potentially cancerous activity 8 to 10 years before other tests. Christiane Northrup, MD, a Board-Certified ob/gyn, says that by the time tumors grow large enough to detect by physical exam or mammography, they have been growing for seven or more years. Dr. Northrup says thermography is a good choice particularly for younger breasts, which tend to be dense, making it difficult to discern abnormal findings on mammograms.
Breast expert Susan Love, M.D. sees it differently. She says that once a tumor grows blood vessels, cancer cells have a way out of the breast, so by the time thermography indicates the possibility of cancer, it's not early enough to make a difference. Tumors require their own blood supply and make many blood vessels, explains Dr. Love, so they look different from normal tissue.
In June 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a safety communication stating thermography is not an alternative to mammograms and should not be alone for breast cancer screening.
It's easy to understand how all the confusion began. Thermography picks up heat from early tumors that are still too small for mammograms to detect. When mammograms don't find the cancer, physicians call it a false positive for thermography, thus making its value as a screening tool questionable. However, long-term follow up of these false positives found that the women developed breast cancer in the exact location the thermogram pinpointed 5 to 10 years earlier.
According to the International Academy of Clinical Thermography (IACT), neither thermography nor mammography can definitively diagnose breast cancer. Both tests reveal different aspects of the disease process and allow for further exploration.
The IACT says, "Thermography does not have the ability to pinpoint the location of tumors. Consequently, breast thermography's role is in addition to mammography and physical exam, not in lieu of. Breast thermography does not replace mammograms and mammogram does not replace breast thermography, the tests complement each other."
Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. "Screening and Diagnosis." Web.
Northrup, Chistiane, MD. "The Best Breast Test: The Promise of Thermography." HuffingtonPost.com. Web. 12 October 2010.
Gorski, David. "Oprah's Buddy Dr. Christiane Northrup and Breast Thermography: The Opportunistic Promotion of Quackery." ScienceBasedMedicine.org. Web. 11 October 2010.
Food and Drug Administration. "FDA Safety Communication: Breast Cancer Screening - Thermography is Not an Alternative to Mammography." Web. 2 June 2011.
Cockburn, William, D.C., D.A.B.F.E., F.I.A.C.T. "Breast Thermography- A Responsible Second Look." International Academy of Clinical Thermography. Web.
International Academy of Clinical Thermography. "What is Breast Thermography?" Web.
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