Breast HEALTH Awareness Month
Mammography Versus Thermography – Moving Toward a Collaborative Approach
To maximize preventive care for breast health, which is best – mammography or thermography?
Increasingly, the answer is both.
While traditional medical care providers continue to promote annual mammograms for women over age 40 as the best way to detect breast cancer, there are indications that some in the traditional medical community are beginning to acknowledge that thermography can play an important role as both a preventive and early detection tool.
“I’ve seen several patients referred by traditional physicians, and I think it’s wonderful when we can all work together,” says Chelle Weber, Certified Thermography Technician (CTT) and owner of East Bay Thermography. “The objective is to find breast abnormalities as early as possible, and to work with patients to reduce their cancer risk. The more we can do in the way of prevention, the less likely we are to miss something.”
Mammography and Thermography – What’s the Difference?
Most women have a good understanding of mammography, which uses X-rays to create an image of the breast. These X-ray images can reveal early signs of breast cancer, such as dense calcium deposits. Mammography, like all traditional medical X-ray technology, focuses on abnormalities in the physical or anatomical structures within the breast.
Thermography, on the other hand, focuses on physiological changes in temperature and vascular activity. Infrared imaging is used to detect heat and analyze vascular activity, which can change due to biochemical reactions. Thermography is based on the principle that chemical and blood vessel activity is higher in and surrounding pre-cancerous tissue. Pre-cancerous and cancerous masses need an abundant supply of nutrients to grow, and this increased circulation and activity in a tissue region increases the regional surface temperatures, which thermography can detect and monitor.
Unquestionably, 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 mammography beginning at age 40 (earlier for women considered “high risk”). A leading source of breast health information and cancer prevention, The Susan G. Komen website (www.komen.org), states emphatically, “Mammography is the best screening tool for breast cancer used today.”
But mammography has its critics, especially 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. Even the National Cancer Institute has noted potential 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. Researchers wrote that recent biological studies indicated that low-energy X-rays used in mammography are about four times more likely to cause mutational damage than higher energy X-rays.
While thermography carries none of the screening risk, because infrared imaging technology does not involve radiation and is contact-free, it has been hampered by misinformation and allegations of “untrained” clinicians. Most women do not know, for example, that the Food and Drug Administration in 1982 approved thermography as a screening procedure to detect breast cancer. Decades of study and research, better equipment and better training have cleared up much of the misinformation about thermography, but many traditional medical professionals still don’t know much about the practice, largely because medical schools don’t teach it.
While the two testing procedures are different, they’re similar in one important respect: neither method can diagnose breast cancer. But both do reveal abnormalities that can lead to the only fool-proof diagnostic procedure: a biopsy.
Moving Toward a Collaborative Approach
Thermography advocates have long supported for a collaborative approach. The American College of Clinical Thermology describes thermography as “an adjunct to the appropriate use of mammography,” not a competitor. “In fact,” the ACCT website states, “thermography has the ability to identify patients at the highest risk and actually increase the effective usage of mammographic imaging procedures.”
Adding thermography to the breast health toolkit, advocates say, is important because the procedure can detect heat and vascular abnormalities years before being discovered by any other procedure, including mammography. “A thermogram can pick up changes in tissue very early on, which means we can help patients reduce their cancer risk through healthier living, including diet and exercise, stress management, better sleep habits, and lymphatic drainage,” says Weber at East Bay Thermography. “If we could get patients to start coming in younger, in their their 20s, we would have a much better chance of seeing and addressing abnormalities when they occur.”
This collaborative approach has been bolstered by a long-time radiologist and imaging consultant who is a passionate advocate for breast cancer prevention. Dr. Thomas Hudson is the author of Journey to Hope, an inspirational book that helps women understand all the intricacies of breast health and breast cancer. Currently based at the Women’s Center for Radiology in Orlando, Florida, Hudson says one of the biggest challenges to overcome is the conventional medical model, which he says emphasizes treatment over prevention.
“Thermography has the ability to pick up thermal findings, changes in the skin that are due to an early breast cancer, that can be found years before it’s visible on a mammogram,” Hudson says on a Think Beyond Pink radio show available on WebTalkRadio.net. “That’s really talking about prevention, and it’s a big piece that’s missing in the conventional medical model.”
Hudson says that as an imaging consultant, it would be helpful to have thermogram and mammogram information together when looking at specific abnormalities and trying to determine next steps.
“It’s unfortunate that it isn’t used more as an adjunct, because it can pick up things much, much earlier, when there are things that you can actually do in terms of nutrition, in terms of stress reduction and on and on,” he says. “That’s why I think it’s too bad that it isn’t in more use, but I think it will be because that’s the direction things are going.”
Weber in the East Bay agrees. She believes a collaborative approach would benefit both patients and conventional health care providers. “Thermography is one more preventative measure,” says Weber. “The more preventive measures we take, the more likely we are to live longer, healthier lives.”
To learn more about thermography, visit the American College of Clinical Thermology at ThermologyOnline.org or visit BreastThermography.com. For more information about East Bay Thermography, EastBayThermography.com. For more information about Dr. Thomas Hudson and his book Journey to Hope, visit YourJourneyToHope.com. Joel Shuler is the publisher of Natural Awakenings San Antonio.
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