Technology developed by the military is now helping some women and their doctors in the fight against breast cancer.
When Peg Higgins has a health problem, she looks beyond traditional therapies.
“I’m terribly interested in alternative medicine," she says. "I always read and read.”
So it figures, that when doctors said she needed surgery for non-invasive breast cancer, she took a more conservative path.
She says, “As soon as this stereotactic biopsy healed, Iwent down and got a baseline thermogram.”
Thermography maps out temperatures on the skin’s surface. Problem areas register hotter than healthy ones.
Te military developed the technology for night vision. Now some doctors use it to monitor breast treatment.
Dr. Jeanne Stryker says, "You balance the hormones. You get them up to speed with better nutrition and supplementation and have them come back in three to six months.”
Dr. Stryker also uses thermography as a screening tool in addition to mammography.
She says, "Mammography is limited in a woman who’s got dense breasts. Even in a woman who has completely fatty breasts, you can miss 10-15 percent of breast cancers.”
Some studies suggest the infrared images pick up vascular changes that signal a cancer in-the-making.
"You’re able to detect 100 cells versus thousands and thousands of cells that have developed before you can see it anatomically,” Dr. Stryker says.
Peg likes the test because it’s pain-free and there’s no radiation. Her most recent results show a hormone adjustment is working.
She says, "I’ll probably have it every six months, just to be sure I’m doing okay.”
The American Medical Association is not yet recommending thermography, claiming there's not proof it's effective. But new studies are being done. The test is not covered by insurance.
Fast Facts:Roughly 212,920 new cases of female breast cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year. About 40,970 women will die from it.
Health experts recommend routine screening to detect breast cancer in early stages. An important part of screening is an annual mammogram for women 40 and older.
Mammography is the gold standard for breast screening but it isn’t perfect. Ten percent of women will receive a false positive result at some point in their lives. Mammography can also miss signs of breast cancer in 20 to 40 percent of women with the disease.
Another type of imaging, called breast thermography, uses infrared technology to scan for hot spots in the breast which may be an indication of infection or cancer. When combined with mammography, breast thermography is 93 percent sensitive in its ability to detect very small changes in the breast.
Breast Cancer Screening
Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women and the second leading cause of cancer death (lung cancer is the first). This year, the American Cancer Society estimates 212,920 new cases of invasive female breast cancer will be diagnosed in this country. About 40,970 women will die from the disease.
Generally, the sooner a cancer is detected, the better the chance of successful treatment. According to guidelines published by the American Cancer Society, women should begin performing a monthly breast self-exam sometime in their 20s. Any unusual changes or lumps that are found should be reported to a health care provider. Women should also start getting a clinical breast exam (CBE, an exam performed by a health professional). A CBE is recommended every three years from 20 to 40 and annually after 40.
The gold standard for breast cancer screening is mammography (X-rays of the breast). An annual screening mammogram is recommended for all women beginning at 40.
Limits of Screening
Mammography and breast exams are not perfect screening tools. Some women dislike the discomfort and embarrassment sometimes associated with mammography. Mammography may not give a clear result in women with very dense breasts. In addition, research suggests one in five women will receive a false positive clinical breast exam in their lifetimes (i.e., the screening indicates possible breast cancer, but a biopsy shows there is no cancer). Over ten years of screening, half of all women will receive at least one false positive result from a screening mammogram. False positive tests can lead to high levels of anxiety for the patient and unnecessary biopsies.
There is also a risk that screening will miss a cancer (called a false negative result). Studies show 20 to 40 percent of women with breast cancer have a false negative mammography screening.
Thermography for Breast Cancer Screening
Some health care professionals are now offering a different kind of breast screening, called thermography (also known as digital infrared imaging). thermography uses infrared technology to detect areas of heat in targeted areas of the body. When cancer develops, the tumor needs a blood supply to get nutrients and grow. The cancer cells send out signals that cause the development and growth of blood vessels that connect the tumor to a blood supply. That process creates heat, which can be detected on a special, digital, infrared camera. Images produced by thermography produce a colored map of the region that highlights areas of tissue by color (reflecting the amount of heat generated in a specific area).
Breast thermography is a very comfortable procedure for patients. It doesn’t require breast compression or injection of contrast dyes to get a clear image of the tissues. thermography is also capable of detecting much smaller areas of abnormality than can be seen on a mammogram. The procedure may even detect small pre-cancerous changes in breast tissue, allowing doctors to intervene before a cancer develops. thermography can also be used to monitor changes in the breast when a woman is receiving treatment.
Thermography is not meant to replace mammograms as a screening tool. It’s not 100 percent accurate. A positive result could be caused by infection, a benign tumor or fibrocystic disease. Instead, some experts are recommending thermography be used to establish a baseline image for younger women and then combined with standard mammography in older women. Research shows a combination of mammography and thermography increases screening sensitivity to 93 percent. When clinical breast examinations are added to the screening, sensitivity increases to 98 percent. Experts also remind women that no screening method can diagnose cancer – only a biopsy can do that.
The American College of Clinical Thermology (ACCT) recommends all women have breast thermography done every three years between 20 and 30. Annual screenings are recommended in women 30 and older. Screening at a younger age gives doctors a baseline record to which they can compare future screenings for changes. It also enables physicians to detect earlier signs of breast cancer or pre-cancerous conditions. For a list of ACCT-approved facilities, log onto the organization’s website at http://www.thermologyonline.org. thermography is not yet covered by most health insurance policies.
Web Resources:American College of Clinical Thermology Web site.
For information on thermography:
International Academy of Clinical Thermology Web site
For information on breast cancer:
American Cancer Society Web site
National Cancer Institute Web site