Women should continue to have regular mammograms to screen for breast cancer and not turn to thermography, the FDA and other breast cancer experts say, because thermography has not been shown to be effective in detecting breast cancer.
Some spas, homeopathic clinics, and others have touted the use of thermography as an alternative to mammography. The FDA and cancer experts say there is no evidence it can detect or detect breast cancer. In fact, the FDA has issued warnings and fines to health care providers who make misleading claims about thermography.
The biggest risk is that if you get a test that hasn’t been proven to be effective, it could mean your breast cancer will be diagnosed later, when treatment is more difficult and more likely.
“The most comprehensive evidence we have tells us that mammography is the best tool we have for saving lives, which is why it is recommended and advised by almost every medical organization,” said Lars J. Grimm, MD, MHS, FSBI , a breast radiologist at Duke University Medical Center and an associate professor of radiology at Duke University School of Medicine. “Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women and mammography is the only way for us to detect it early.”
The earlier breast cancer is found, the easier it is to treat, the more treatment options are available, and the more likely a patient is to have a better outcome, Grim notes.
Rachel Brem, MD, agrees. She is the director of the Breast Imaging and Intervention Center and the breast cancer program leader at the George Washington Cancer Center, in Washington, DC.
“The goal is to save lives and thermography doesn’t save lives. Mammography does,’ says Brem. “Over the past 2 decades, breast cancer deaths in the US have fallen by 40%, based on a combination of effective screening and therapies. Effective screening starts with mammography.”
Brem chose to specialize in breast cancer after her mother had the disease. Years into her career, she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now 27 years cancer-free, in addition to her work at George Washington, she is also the chief medical officer of the Brem Foundation, where she educates women about the disease and prevention.
“There is absolutely no data showing that there is any reduction in mortality or benefit with thermography,” Brem says. “We have many options for finding early, curable breast cancer, but thermography is not one of them.”
What is the difference between mammography and thermography?
Mammography and 3D mammography (also known as breast tomosynthesis) take low-dose X-rays of the breast. These images allow doctors to check for lumps and other early signs of breast cancer.
Mammography is “the only proven imaging modality shown to improve breast cancer survival,” Grimm says.
Thermography uses an infrared camera to show the heat and blood flow in the body. Grimm explains that cancers use a lot more energy, so the theory is that if there was breast cancer, the area would show up with higher temperatures.
“The problem is, there’s been a huge number of studies involving hundreds of thousands of women comparing mammography to thermography, showing that thermography just isn’t very good,” Grimm says.
“It’s missing a lot of cancers and it has false positives,” Grimm says. “So if you look at them side by side, you see that the thermogram doesn’t work as well as a mammogram.”
When should I get a mammogram and how often do I need one?
Your doctor can tell you what is right for you, given your personal risk of breast cancer.
Brem, Grimm, and many medical organizations, including the American College of Radiology and Society of Breast Imaging, recommend that women have annual mammograms after age 40. But some medical organizations suggest every 2 years and/or from the age of 50.
“Data saves most lives [by women] get a mammogram every year,” says Brem.
People at higher risk for the disease — including those with a family history of breast cancer — may need to start mammogram screenings earlier. And if they also have dense breast tissue, their doctor may recommend that they have an additional imaging test — breast ultrasound or MRI — in addition to their mammogram. Those extra tests don’t replace mammography. Does nothing.
“Effective screening starts with mammography. For some women, that may not be enough’, says Brem.
Why Mammograms Are Important
When women have regular mammograms, breast cancer can often be found before a woman has any symptoms of the disease or before a lump can be felt.
Again, finding breast cancer early is key.
“Not only is the chance of survival different [with early-stage cancer], but the journey a woman has to make is also much easier,” says Brem. She notes that with early-stage breast cancer, the surgery and chemotherapy may be less extensive than if the cancer is found later.
What About Radiation Exposure With a Mammogram?
One of the concerns some women have about mammograms is radiation exposure. But mammograms use a very small dose of radiation.
“In radiology, we take radiation safety very seriously. In the field of mammography, the radiation dose we use is incredibly low and very tightly regulated,” Grimm says. “The risk of radiation is so small and the benefit in detecting breast cancer far outweighs the risks.”
Brem agrees. “The machines have to be scanned every year to make sure they are below the allowable dose,” she says. “You get more radiation when you fly to California.”
Overcoming the discomfort and fear
Some women postpone a mammogram because they are afraid it will be uncomfortable or because they are afraid to wait for the results.
“Most women don’t like the compression that comes with mammography. I don’t like the compression either,” Brem says, referring to the brief pressure applied to the chest to make the X-ray. “But it works.”
She also encourages women to remember that any fear they feel about getting a mammogram is temporary. Not getting a mammogram doesn’t change whether you have breast cancer or not. It only worsens your ability to treat it if it is found later.
“We know that having a mammogram causes anxiety, but it’s also life-saving,” Brem says. “We hope that women today are empowered, informed and will stand up for themselves. We believe that every woman should have a mammogram.”