Breast Thermography: Offers Evidence-Based Alternative Screening
May 27, 2015 02:32PM
By Nick LeRoy
In late 2009, guidelines commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and developed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force were released that recommended women start mammograms at the age of 50 and continue to screen every other year until age 75. This was in contradiction to the traditional “start at 40 and screen annually” recommendations that had been gospel. These new guidelines reflected the inaccuracy of mammograms in premenopausal women, as well as the risk of radiation as a contributing cause of breast cancer. Despite being the best researched, most objective mammographic screening guidelines to date, they seem to have been ignored by the medical community, and physicians continue to recommend yearly mammograms starting at age 40.
In 2014, the publication of a study in the British Medical Journal that should have turned the mammography community on its head, “Twenty-Five Year Follow-Up for Breast Cancer Incidence and Mortality of the Canadian National Breast Screening Study: Randomized Screening Trial,” revealed zero benefit from annual mammography screening for women ages 40 to 59. It was actually worse than no benefit, because 22 percent of women were over-diagnosed, meaning that cancers were found that did not need treatment, but were treated anyway. This study and others seriously question the validity of the mantra, “Get your mammogram; mammograms save lives.”
The relevance of this information is twofold: first, regular screening with mammography may not be in a woman’s best interest; and second, there is an alternative to the breast cancer screening test. The alternative, at least for many women, is known as thermography.
Breast thermography is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved breast cancer screening test that does not rely upon radiation and compression. Unlike mammography, thermography does not evaluate tissue density, but rather uses infrared wavelengths to visualize blood vessels and blood flow. Thermography is based on the finding that rapidly dividing breast cells require more energy to sustain growth. Rapid growth is a fundamental characteristic of cancer, and as breast cells are becoming malignant, they secrete chemicals that increase the amount of blood to the developing tumor. This is accomplished by dilating existing blood vessels and also causing the growth of new blood vessels. New blood vessel growth, known as angiogenesis, is known to be the earliest identifiable sign of cancer.
Given the recommendations by the task force for women under 50 to avoid mammograms, thermography is the ideal alternative. It’s safe, non-compressive and is not affected by the increased breast tissue density that is typical in premenopausal women. A baseline thermogram can be performed at an early age, usually 20, to provide a comparison for future examinations.
For women older than 50, thermography can be used in addition to mammography or as an alternative. The standard of care for breast cancer screening for women ages 50 to 75 continues to be mammograms every other year, despite research suggesting that an alternative is needed. At the very least, thermography in older women that continue to receive mammograms provides different information about blood flow, and the more information a doctor has, the less likely a cancer is going to go undetected. For women that want to avoid radiation and are looking for an evidence-based alternative, thermography is the best option, with more than 800 published studies attesting to its value.
If an alternative to squashing and irradiating a woman’s breasts sounds good, doctors, to minimize the risk of lawsuits and medical board sanctions, has to follow whatever guidelines are established for a given condition. Although guidelines are useful and attempt to safeguard patients and ensure quality care, they are slow to change and often do not reflect current research. This seems to be the case with regard to the mounting evidence against mammography for routine annual screening.
Breast thermography is a safe, effective way to screen for breast cancer without compression and without radiation. It is not confounded by tissue density, making it ideal for the evaluation of women with fibrocystic or dense breasts. In younger women that are not candidates for mammography, thermography provides the reassurance of regular cancer screening. Annual thermographic screening in women over 50 provides more information than mammography alone, increasing the likelihood of accurately identifying cancer. Breast thermography provides more information and greater accuracy, and with that, the reassurance that patients are cancer-free.
Dr. Nick LeRoy, DC, MS, is the director of the Illinois Center for Progressive Health. He specializes in alternative therapies for gynecologic conditions, including cervical dysplasia, endometriosis, uterine fibroids and breast health.