Thermography, Just Say No (and please get screened )

As we come to the end of the year I hope you have your breast cancer screening scheduled and caution you against the use of Thermography.  

I was recently surprised by a patient when I asked about her last breast cancer screening – she informed me that she was not getting mammograms but yearly thermography instead.  When I further questioned why, she revealed that she wanted to avoid the radiation from mammograms and noted the story of local practitioner had discovered their breast cancer this way.  I love teaching opportunities as there was so much to this that was wrong.

For those of you who haven’t heard of thermography, it is a technology that uses an infrared camera to detect temperature differences.  The original hypothesis behind use in breast cancer screening is that cancer cells generally have more blood flow and faster metabolic rate so should theoretically appear warmer and show up as hot spots on a thermographic image.  Please note that this technology is not FDA approved for breast imaging and has never been found to be an effective method for cancer screening used alone or with other screening modalities. As a test, it has low sensitivity meaning it is likely to miss a cancer that is present.  

Many women are lured by the claims that the process is painless, radiation free and safe.  These are predatory claims taking advantage of women.  All of the websites I have seen from businesses offering thermography are loaded with misinformation including: 

  • False claims of early detection 
  • Bogus credentials and training 
  • False FDA approval claims 
  • Scare tactics regarding mammography

The harm in thermography is not detecting a cancer that is present resulting in a missed or delayed diagnosis.  We know that the earlier a cancer is detected the better chance of a curative therapy. 

A word of caution against listening to anecdotal data.  Anecdotal Fallacy is when people use limited personal experience to make sweeping conclusions on a topic.  These logical fallacies are common patterns of reasoning that seem true on the surface but have one or more critical flaws.  At their root, many are oversimplifications and are appealing because they make something complex into something simple and easy to understand.  However, this oversimplification often leaves out important details (like good data)  leading to the wrong conclusions. 

Lastly, I find it interesting that because I am an integrative practitioner, it was assumed that I would be on board.  Nowhere in my training, including an Integrative Medicine Fellowship, was breast thermography ever described as an accepted form of screening.  Integrative medicine is informed by science and data and does not support the use of thermography for breast cancer screening.  

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