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Breast Health: Mammography and Thermography Screenings

Seizing the Opportunity to Enhance Preventive Care By Working Together

by Joel Shuler

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.

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 (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.

“No one screening test is 100% accurate, but combining these screening tests greatly increases the chance of early detection and the opportunity to intervene early and change the outcome,” explains Dena Johnston, owner of Ohio Infrared Health in Columbus.  “Thermograms and mammograms complement each other, allowing women to have another tool that they can add to their regular preventive check ups. They can also safely start getting thermograms at any age.”

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 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. “The women that we see are very proactive with regards to their breast health. They want the earliest possible detection and the opportunity to make lifestyle changes that can affect their breast health,” said Johnston of Ohio Infrared Health.

This collaborative approach has been bolstered by a longtime 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 woman understand all the intricacies of breast health and breast cancer. Currently based at the Women’s Center for Radiology in Orlando, Fla., Hudson said one of the biggest challenges to overcome is the conventional medical model, which he said 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 said 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 said 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 said. “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.”

While the majority of patients at Ohio Infrared Health are women over age 50, thermography is most beneficial for younger women. “Women under age 50 have denser breast tissue, which makes it more difficult for mammograms to detect abnormalities. Breast cancers are particularly aggressive and grow significantly faster in younger women,” explains Johnston. “Thermography offers young women a radiation free way to start screening their breasts much earlier. Thermography is also safe for women who are pregnant, nursing, or have breast implants. The number one thing that women say to me is that they wish they had known about thermography sooner.”

To learn more about thermography, visit the American College of Clinical Thermology at ThermologyOnline.org, or visit BreastThermography.com. For more information about Dr. Thomas Hudson and his book Journey to Hope, visit YourJourneyToHope.com. For more information about Ohio Infrared Health in Columbus, visit OhioInfraredHealth.com.

Joel Shuler is the publisher of Natural Awakenings San Antonio. Connect at NaturalAwakeningsSA.com.

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