Breast Thermography: Better Risk Assessment

Breast thermography is a non-invasive and painless test, with no radiation involved. It can detect and monitor early warning signs of breast cancer.

This type of breast cancer screening is particularly useful for people under the age of 50. This is because mammography, another type of screening, can be less effective for this group.

However, thermography is not an alternative to mammography. Mammography remains the main way of screening for early signs of breast cancer and uses low doses of X-rays.

How thermography works

The way thermography, or thermal imaging, works is based on how cancer cells grow. When cancer cells are growing and multiplying in a tumor, blood flow is very fast in that area.

Increased blood flow makes skin temperature increase. This rise in skin temperature is what breast thermography is aiming to detect.

There is a debate among doctors about how useful thermography is as a way to diagnose breast cancer. The American Cancer Societyhave said that it will take time to see if it is better than, or equal to, current tests.

Thermography, also known as thermal imaging, detects the rise in skin temperature which may occur when cancer cells are multiplying.

Process of thermography

Breast thermography is a non-invasive physical test that lasts for around 15 minutes. It is also “non-compressive,” which means that it does not put force on, or squeeze, the breast, as is the case with breast mammography exams.

Some people are worried about the force put on breasts in a mammogram, so prefer the idea of a thermograph. However, people should not be put off by a mammogram as it is currently considered the gold standard for breast cancer screening.

Thermography uses digital infrared imaging to detect subtle changes in the breast based on symmetry. It looks for clear abnormalities in one breast in comparison to the other. This makes it more difficult to use on individuals who have undergone a mastectomy.

The process can be undertaken in a doctor’s office. During the thermograph a person will be asked to stand around 6-8 feet away from the camera.

What thermographs detect

To understand a thermograph, it is necessary to know two things about cancerous breast tissue, compared to normal breast tissue. These are:

  • there is more metabolic activity (biochemical reactions)
  • there is increased blood flow

These aspects of breast cancer tissue result from the cancer cells doing all they can to maintain and grow. Another side effect of this is a rise in skin temperature.

Ultra sensitive cameras and computers can detect this increase in temperature. They produce high-resolution images.

Using thermography with other tests

Thermography may be used alongside mammograms, where the thermograph would be used as a baseline record to be checked against future mammograms.

Thermography can be used alongside other tests, such as mammographic screening.

Normally if a thermograph alone is used, the images taken will be kept on record and used for future evaluations. The idea is that an initial breast thermography test, which can be used on people as young as 18, will provide a baseline.

Future tests can then be compared to this baseline to see if there are any changes or abnormalities that develop. These might be part of a yearly physical examination.

Follow up tests

If abnormalities are detected, then follow-up procedures will be required to investigate further. This may include a mammogram.

These follow-ups can also rule cancer out, as the images could be showing a host of other breast diseases. When abnormalities are present it could be a sign of:

  • cancer
  • fibrocystic disease
  • infection
  • vascular disease

A doctor will be able to plan a careful program for further diagnosis and monitoring. They can also identify if treatment is required.

Effectiveness

People do not have to decide between breast thermography or mammography, but may use them both. Using the two together can be more effective.

Breast thermography is less effective at detecting small cancers or cancers deeper in the breast tissue.

The use of thermography, mammography, and a clinical exam is known as the “multimodal approach”. Using this approach can help identify around 95 percent of early stage cancers.

Technology

A combination of sophisticated infrared cameras and computers are used to conduct thermography.

Thermal imaging technicians capture an infrared photograph, or heat image, of the breast.

This can then be printed in high resolution for a doctor to study, or may be sent to them electronically.

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