The Best Breast Test: The Promise of Thermography
Christiane Northrup, MD
Board-certified ob/gyn, bestselling author
Posted: October 12, 2010 08:23 AM
Every year when Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) comes around I am a saddened and surprised that thermography hasn’t become more popular. Part of this is my mindset. I’d rather focus on breast health and ways to prevent breast cancer at the cellular level than put the emphasis on testing and retesting until you finally do find something to poke, prod, cut out or radiate.
That’s why I call October Breast Health Awareness Month, not Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I understand that mammography has been the gold standard for years. Doctors are the most familiar with this test, and many believe that a mammogram is the best test for detecting breast cancer early. But it’s not. Studies show that a thermogram identifies precancerous or cancerous cells earlier, and produces unambiguous results, which cuts down on additional testing–and it doesn’t hurt the body. Isn’t thiswhat women really want?
I recently discussed thermography with my colleague Philip Getson, D.O. Dr. Getson has been a medical thermographer since 1982. As you may know, thermography is a form of thermal (infrared) imaging. Dr. Getson explains how thermography works this way.
It is widely acknowledged that cancers, even in their earliest stages, need nutrients to maintain or accelerate their growth. In order to facilitate this process, blood vessels are caused to remain open, inactive blood vessels are activated, and new ones are formed through a process known as neoangiogenesis. This vascular process causes an increase in surface temperature in the affected regions, which can be viewed with infrared imaging cameras. Additionally, the newly formed or activated blood vessels have a distinct appearance, which thermography can detect.
Heat is an indication that inflammation exists, and typically inflammation is present in precancerous and cancerous cells, too. (It’s also present in torn muscles and ligaments as well as arthritic joints, which thermography can also detect.)
Thermography’s accuracy and reliability is remarkable, too. In the 1970s and 1980s, a great deal of research was conducted on thermography. In 1981, Michel Gautherie, Ph.D., and his colleagues reported on a 10-year study, which found that an abnormal thermogram was 10 times more significant as a future risk indicator for breast cancer than having a history of breast cancer in your family.
The most promising aspect of thermography is its ability to spot anomalies years before mammography. Using the same data from the 10-year study, researchers H. Spitalier and D. Giruaud determined that thermography alone was the first alarm in 60 percent of the cases of women who were eventually diagnosed with cancer. Dr. Getson adds:
Since thermal imaging detects changes at the cellular level, studies suggest that this test can detect activity 8 to 10 years before any other test. This makes it unique in that it affords us the opportunity to view changes before the actual formation of the tumor.
Studies have shown that by the time a tumor has grown to sufficient size to be detectable by physical examination or mammography, it has in fact been growing for about seven years achieving more than 25 doublings of the malignant cell colony. At 90 days there are two cells, at one year there are 16 cells, and at five years there are 1,048,576 cells–an amount that is still undetectable by a mammogram.
(At 8 years, there are almost 4 billion cells.)
Today, women are encouraged to get a mammogram, so they can find their breast cancer as early as possible. With thermography as your regular screening tool, it’s likely that you would have the opportunity to make adjustments to your diet, beliefs and lifestyle to transform your cells before they became cancerous. Talk about true prevention.
Clearer Results, Fewer Additional Tests
To many, it felt like the world was set on its ear when, in November 2009, the United States Preventative Services Task Force said it recommended that women begin regular mammograms at 50 instead of 40 and that mammograms are needed every two years instead of annually between the ages of 50 and 74. Some women felt this was a way for the insurance companies to save money, but I cheered these new guidelines. (For more information read “The New Mammography Guidelines” in the Women’s Wisdom Cirlce on www.drnorthrup.com.) The Task Force concluded that the risk of additional and unnecessary testing far outweighed the benefits of annual mammograms–and I couldn’t agree more.
Ten years ago, Danish researchers Ole Olsen and Peter Gotzsche concluded, after analyzing data from seven studies, that mammograms often led to needless treatments and were linked to a 20 percent increase in mastectomies, many of which were unnecessary. Dr. Getson expounded, “According to the 1998 Merck Manual, for every case of breast cancer diagnosed each year, 5 to 10 women will undergo a painful breast biopsy. This means that if a woman has an annual mammogram for 10 years, she has a 50 percent chance of having a breast biopsy.”
Thermography is a particularly good choice for younger breasts, which tend to be denser. It doesn’t identify fibrocystic tissue, breast implants or scars as needing further investigation. It’s also good at detecting changes in the cells in the armpit area, an area that mammography isn’t always good at screening. Perhaps even more exciting is that a thermogram can help a woman diagnosed with ductal carconoma in situ (DCIS) decide, along with her health practitioners, whether she requires aggressive or conservative treatment. If you’ve ever had an unnecessary biopsy or been scared by a false positive result on a mammogram, please consider getting a thermogram and using it in conjunction with the mammogram to figure our your treatment options.
Thermography is very safe–it’s even safe for pregnant and nursing women! It’s merely an image of the heat of your body. It’s ironic that the test women are using for prevention may be causing the very problem they’re trying to avoid in the first place! Another reason the United States Preventative Services Task Force reversed its aggressive mammogram guidelines was because of the exposure to radiation. It’s well known that excessive doses of radiation can increase your risk of cancer. And this doesn’t even touch on the harm done to the body from unnecessary biopsies, lumpectomies, mastectomies, chemotherapy, radiation treatment and so forth.
It Doesn’t Hurt
Unlike a mammogram, a thermogram doesn’t hurt! Just about everyone who’s ever had a mammogram has complained about how painful it is. The first time you get a mammogram can be quite a shock. Who knew a breast could be flattened like that? Well, the pain isn’t in your imagination. The pressure that the mammogram machine puts on each breast when it’s being compressed is equivalent to putting a 50-pound weight on your breast.
The Best Test for You
As with anything, I suggest you let your inner guidance help you in all decisions about your health. If you feel it’s best to get an annual mammogram, then by all means continue with them. Just be aware of the drawbacks and risks associated with the test. One helpful way to assess your risk for breast cancer–which in turn can help you decide how often you want to have mammograms–is to use the National Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool. After you answer seven simple questions, it calculates both your risk of getting invasive breast cancer in the next five years as well as your lifetime risk, and it compares each to the risk for the average U.S. woman of the same age and race or ethnicity.
You would be surprised by how many women tell me their doctors make them feel guilty for not having a mammogram. Women who just know they have healthy breasts. Don’t be intimidated if you prefer to forgo annual mammography. Thermography is a better technology for all the reasons I’ve already described. Plus it gives results that are unique to you, time after time. But there are some things to be wary of. Dr. Getson explains, “To be sure, not all thermographic equipment is the same, nor is every center backed by qualified, board-certified physicians who are specifically trained in the interpretation of these images.
Dr. Getson says that women (and men) seeking to have infrared imaging should consider the following:
1. What is the “drift factor” in the apparatus? Anything over 0.2 degrees centigrade leads to poor
2. What are the credentials of the interpreting physician?
3. The room in which the study is performed should be free of outside light and the temperature
should always be at 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit, with a proper cooling system in place.
4. Make sure the images are marked up (doctors call this “stat”-ed) for future comparison.
5. Ask if the studies are read on site or sent by email to a distant interpreter.
6. Be sure that the physician is available to explain and discuss all findings.
Instead of just screening for breast cancer, a thermogram can tell you how healthy your breasts are. It also has the potential to truly detect breast cell anomalies long before mammography can detect cancer, when done properly. This allows you to implement lifestyle changes that can improve the health of your breasts proactively instead of waiting for a cancer diagnosis later. In honor of Breast Health Awareness month, I encourage you to check out thermography for yourself and your loved ones.
visit www.drnorthrup.com and sign up for the Women’s Wisdom Circle.
1. M. Gautherie and C. M. Gros, “Breast Thermography and Cancer Risk Prediction,” Cancer, vol.
45, no. 1 (January 1, 1980), pp. 51-56.
2. H. Spitalier et al., “Does Infrared Thermography Truly Have a Role in Present-Day Breast Cancer
Management?” in M. Gautherie and E. Albert, eds., Biomedical Thermology: Proceedings of an
International Symposium (New York: A. R. Liss, 1982), pp. 269-78; R. Amalric et al., “Does Infrared
Thermography Truly Have a Role in Present-Day Breast Cancer Management?” Progress in Clinical
and Biological Research, vol. 107 (1982), pp. 269-78.
3. Gotzsche, P. and Olsen, O., “Is Screening for Breast Cancer with Mammography Justifiable?” The
Lancet, vol. 355, no. 9198 (Jan. 8, 2000), pp. 129-34; Gotzsche, P. and Olsen, O., Cochrane Review
on Screening for Breast Cancer with Mammography, The Lancet, vol. 358, no. 9290 (Oct. 20, 2001),
4. Semelka, R., Imaging X-rays cause cancer: a call to action for caregivers and patients, Medscape,
Feb. 13, 2006, reviewed and renewed Feb. 16, 2007.
Follow Christiane Northrup, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drchrisnorthrup
Christiane Northrup, MD: The Best Breast Test: The Promise of Thermography Page 4 of 4