By BECKY GILLETTEThe effectiveness of mammograms has come under increased scrutiny in recent years because of studies that have shown about half of women aged 40 to 50 having an annual screening mammogram for ten years will have a false alarm, which leads to an estimated $4 billion per year in unnecessary follow-up testing. Another 20 percent of mammograms over a 10-year period result in false negatives, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Only about four in 10 women in the U.S. get mammograms on the recommended schedule. Reasons can include lack of health insurance, concerns about the effectiveness of mammograms, the emotional trauma and expense of a false positive, a desire to avoid radiation and issues around discomfort of the breast compression for mammograms that can be particularly difficult for women with small breasts.
Some women in the state are turning to an alternative screening device called thermography either for more information when a mammogram is inconclusive or because they want to avoid the radiation with mammograms either entirely or reduce the amount of radiation by spreading out mammograms over longer periods of time.
Previously annual mammogram screenings were recommended starting at age 40. Now the National Cancer Institute recommends mammograms every two years starting at age 50 until age 74.
Betty Sue O’Brian, a naturopath in Ocean Springs who is owner of Pathway Health, said breast thermography is a good alternative for women who believe that mammograms are invasive and dangerous.
“Thermography provides thermal (heat) markers in the body without additional radiation and is non-invasive,” O’Brian said.
Breast thermography requires no compression of the breasts as with a mammogram. The test that takes only about 15 minutes uses digital images from a sophisticated infrared camera read on a desktop computer to detect hot spots in breast tissue that could be the result of a tumor growing. The faster a malignant tumor grows, the more infrared radiation it generates,
Proponents of breast thermography said it can result in earlier detection than with breast self-exams, doctor exams or mammography. O’Brian has hosted thermal imaging sessions at Pathway Health by Carolyn Olson, CCT, who travels to about a half dozen cities in the state to offer the thermal imaging.
O’Brian said some of the women who come for thermal imaging want to avoid radiation from mammography, but might feel doing no screening is foolhardy.
“The breast thermal imaging does give people a sense of security,” O’Brian said. “They might feel they can skip a mammogram some years. Some people believe mammograms are a cause of the problem. There is a theory that mammograms are one reason we are seeing more breast cancer. Early detection is good, but what if too much radiation is contributing to the problem? That is something that needs to be considered. People who have a fear of the radiation do thermal imaging screening to give them additional information.”
O’Brian said clients might feel they can skip their mammogram some years, but depending upon the results, the thermographer may actually advise them to have further testing with mammography.
“This small safety check helps people who believe that mammograms are one cause of the increase in breast cancer rates,” O’Brian said. “We want early detection, but not at the cost of creating more cancers.”
O’Brian said another factor is the controversy about early detection of small amounts of cancer. She said there is growing evidence that prevention is the most important first step and that improving the immune system with diet and lifestyle changes can help a healthy immune system fight cancer.
Olson said all women of the ages recommended for screening could benefit from thermography.
“However, it is especially appropriate for younger women (30-50) whose denser breast tissue makes it more difficult for mammography to be effective,” she said. “This is also beneficial for women who, for many reasons, are unable to undergo routine mammography. This test can provide a ‘clinical marker’ to the doctor or mammographer that a specific area of the breast needs particularly close examination. If cancer is found early, there are choices for treatment. With prompt treatment, the outlook is good. In fact, most women treated for early breast cancer will be free from breast cancer for the rest of their lives.”
Olson said since it takes years for a tumor to grow, the earliest possible indication of abnormality is needed to allow for the earliest possible treatment and intervention.
The thermal images taken by Olson are read by a doctor who provides a report to the patient. If a hot spot is found that indicates an active tumor, women are advised to see their physician, who may then order a mammogram and\or biopsy.
O’Brian, who is a teacher with the Southern Institute of Healing Arts, has used the thermal imaging herself not just for the breasts, but her entire body. The tests showed some potential trouble spots which she then addressed with naturopathic medicine. When she retook the whole body thermal imaging, she was in the clear.
“I found some things I was able to work on and then when I redid the test, it was all better,” she said. “It is a pre-clinical insight into the whole body. A lot of people choose whole body imaging, which is relatively inexpensive and can give you a lot of good information.”