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In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness and prevention month (October), we’re talking about a little-known screening tool available for women. Studies show that 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. That’s a staggering number! Understanding risk factors and early detection are key. While mammograms remain the ultimate tool in diagnosing breast cancer but can be uncomfortable and invasive for some. In addition to mammograms, an additional imaging technique which provides an alternative analysis is breast thermography. 

 

What is breast thermography?

Breast thermography is a technique utilizes infrared imaging and some pretty complicated computer programming. Together it provides a picture of the tissue underlying the skin covering the breast. This technique is based on temperature variations allowing us to visualize changes in temperature for certain areas of the breast tissue. Providing more information about abnormal growths or potentially cancer. When cancer grows in the breast tissue, it also grows blood vessels (a process called angiogenesis — angio meaning blood vessels and genesis meaning creation of) in order to feed or supply the abnormal cells with nutrients. Oftentimes, these new blood vessels will reveal themselves on thermographic images. This image could potentially point to the site that a tumor or abnormal growth is developing.

 

Is breast thermography painful?

Breast thermography is often advertised as a non-invasive and more comfortable way of imaging the breast tissue. As there is no compression of the breast tissue and no ionizing radiation as seen with mammography. There is also no need to apply ultrasonic gel (which is cold) or application of the ultrasound machine directly to the breast tissue. All of which may allow for some folks the autonomy that they desire during a medical imaging procedure.

To be fair, there are some drawbacks to this form of imaging. For instance, the imaging must be conducted in a temperature and humidity controlled room, and there cannot be any ambient drafts. When receiving the imaging one must stay in the temperature controlled room for a specific amount of time allowing the body to properly acclimate to the environment. Thermography also has not been as widely studied and verified as other forms of imaging, such as mammogram or ultrasound.

 

Are there any downsides to breast thermography?

There are some shortfalls with breast thermography. For instance, many times breast cancer begins as “microcalcifications” within breast tissue, generally only visible through a mammogram. These microcalcifications are incredibly small, and usually not associated with angiogenesis at the time of discovery. Angiogenesis is revealed on imaging as breast cancer grows from microcalcifications into larger tumors. At this point, the cancer may have developed to a more significant, and harder-to-treat, stage. This renders breast thermography ineffective at catching early-stage breast cancer, when it is easiest to treat.

Additionally, while breast thermography is effective at catching larger irregularities, it cannot be considered an end-all way of diagnosing breast abnormalities. Often when abnormalities are found on thermography, further breast imaging and workup is needed. Resulting in the need for imaging methods many women are trying to avoid (like mammograms).

 

Overall, it is important to talk to a medical provider about all available options. Those at low risk for breast cancer, or for those hoping to receive additional information about breast health, breast thermography may be a viable option. However, it does not replace other imaging techniques such as mammogram or ultrasound for screening or diagnostic purposes.

 

Don’t forget to do monthly self breast exams to stay on top of your breast health. Here’s a how to guide for you. 

 

 

*Disclaimer: this screening method does not replace other screening or imaging techniques such as mammography or ultrasound, but it can be useful for those who are hoping to optimize their breast health.