Five Years Plus











{August 22, 2010}   Re-imagining Imaging

As my regular readers know in recent blog posts I have been exploring breast imaging issues. I had my first thermography appointment this week and I have to admit, it was a bit anti-climatic after all this build-up. After changing into a lavender colored gown on my top, the appointment started with a health history review and time for questions, after which I sat on a swiveling stool in front of an infrared camera while my practitioner took six pictures from different angles. I was in and out within half and hour. The best part was seeing the colorful images of my breasts displayed on the laptop monitor looking kind of like a topographical map. Although the images are produced instantaneously, they need to be interpreted by a qualified doctor, so I had to wait for my results.

All my research indicates that thermography can indicate the earliest signs of breast cancer, is radiation-free, pain-free and poses no health risks whatsoever. It actually detects the activity of abnormal cells and has the ability to accurately assess younger women with dense breast tissue for whom mammography is notoriously unreliable. Oh by the way, it is also the least expensive screening technology available. So why isn’t it the dominant breast cancer screening modality? Why isn’t it even recommended by most physicians?

Thermography, also known as digital infrared imaging, is based upon the principle that chemical and blood vessel activity in both precancerous and the area surrounding a developing breast cancer is almost always higher than in normal tissues. This activity frequently results in an increase in regional surface temperature of the breast. Thermography uses ultra-sensitive infrared cameras and sophisticated computer software to detect, analyze, and produce high-resolution images of these temperature variations, which may be the earliest signs of breast cancer.

In the race for better imaging spearheaded in the 1970’s thermography showed promise, but was sidelined by the conventional medical establishment by the 1980s. I found several different explanations for this.

  1. Early Mistakes – In Beyond Mammography, Len Saputo recalls that breast thermography became available in the 1960s, before clinical trials of its effectiveness were completed and before there was a clear understanding of how to interpret the images. A relatively high rate of unnecessary surgeries resulted, leading the technology to be “sidelined by mainstream medical practice for several decades”.
  2. Technology improvements – When I asked the technician who performed my thermogram the reason that thermography was not used more often, she replied that the medical infrared imaging cameras and computer technology had improved greatly over the past decade making it much more suitable now for widespread use.
  3. Inappropriate Comparison – According to the American College of Clinical Thermology, when thermography was first explored for breast imaging during the 1970s, it was tested and evaluated as a competitive strategy to mammography. In 1974 a major project on breast screening called the Carolina Breast Cancer Detection Project that included thermography concluded that mammography should become the primary imaging modality. In fact, the two tests are complementary and both have a place in the detection of breast cancer. Mammography is a structural test that looks at the anatomy of the breasts, density changes and lumps, masses and calcifications. Thermography, on the other hand, measures the activity of the tissue by how much heat is generated. Clinical studies show that in women under age 50, thermography alone is more sensitive (better at detecting suspicious tissue) than mammography, finding 90% of cancers vs. only 70% for mammography alone. However the two modalities combined offer 97% sensitive detection of breast cancer!
  4. Insurance Coverage Revoked – Also according to the American College of Clinical Thermology, while thermography’s role in breast imaging was being explored, it was also being used in other diagnostic roles. It became popular to use in court as a visual proof of pain in accident and injury lawsuits. In response, the insurance industry lobby succeeded in removing insurance coverage for thermography in the United States.
  5. Economic/Political Issues – Thermography is inexpensive and because it is inherently safe and doesn’t involve any radiation, requires no regulation or an expensive clinical environment to administer. Screening mammography and the associated follow-up tests (e.g. ultrasound, biopsies) represent an $8 billion industry which might be threatened if thermography was more prominent.
  6. Too Early Detection – Thermograms can pick up changes that precede cancer. When it was first tested on younger women, abnormalities were detected that mammograms couldn’t find. At the time, these were considered “false positives” and led to a mistrust of thermography. It turned out that a large percentage of the women who had these so-called “false positives” developed breast cancer years later. “Thermography’s only ‘error’ was that it was too accurate too early and the results couldn’t be corroborated at the time.” Thermography can provide an early warning signal before tissue actually becomes cancerous. However, if a woman has an abnormal thermogram that no other test can corroborate, the conventional medical establishment still will likely discard it as a “false positive”. Currently there is no protocol (other than surgical removal) in the conventional standard of care for what to do about something that is not cancerous but might become cancer in the future.

What Next?

At the moment there is a resurgence of interest in thermography due to the accumulation of clinical research, improvements in infrared imaging technology and the growing realization that mammography is not an effective option for pre-menopausal women. Thermography could play an important role in the development of a real breast cancer prevention strategy, acting as an early warning system by detecting tissue changes that reflect the early cancerous process. Studies on thermography have demonstrated its ability to warn that this process is underway 8-10 years before any other test can detect it – even before the cells become cancerous. At this early stage, preventive measures such as nutritional supplements, increased exercise and a lifestyle that reduces cellular inflammation and acidification would have time to take effect before cancer ever formed. In addition, thermographic baseline studies are appropriate for women as young as age 20 or 25 whereas harm from the mammogram’s ionizing radiation is cumulative and much worse for younger women.

Robert Kane, a lecturer and thermal imaging interpreter, suggests that the popularization of thermography will have to occur at the grassroots level due to the current political, funding and insurance issues. For my part, I can whole heartedly endorse my first experience of thermography. Three days after my test I received a call from the owner of Advanced Thermal Imaging offering an overview of my results (they had also been mailed to me in a report that morning). I did not realize the undercurrent of stress I had been holding until I heard the words “nothing suspicious”. I was informed that there is “an irregular heat pattern on the left side of my left breast” that although not of concern at this time, should be monitored given my previous history. The fact that there is a way to assess and follow the health of my breast tissue and the lymphatic area on the side where my breast tissue was removed feels very reassuring.

You can find the articles I used to reference this post embedded in the text. I recommend you check them out if you are considering thermography for yourself. A list of approved thermography clinics can be found here. The photo is from the Advanced Thermal Imaging website.

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Art Kilgour says:

great to hear your result gyata!
(good luck in vancouver)



Liz says:

Hi Gyata 🙂 I’m back from my travels and am beginning to read your blog 🙂 Well done!
xoxo
Liz
See you again soon!



Liz says:

Hi 🙂
I;m still waiting for the results of my latest thermography study… I think we had ours at about the same time…
I thought that I would let you know that I’ve created a link to your blog from mine…..I’m continuing to read your blog a bit at a time…I’m so glad that you are blogging!
Liz
xoxo



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