Mammograms vs. Thermograms

August 2011
by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny
Many women today are concerned about the effects of accumulated radiation from routine mammograms. That concern is addressed by using thermography which involves no radiation and ultrasound when necessary.

People often wonder if a thermogram is better than a mammogram, or if they can get a painless thermogram instead of a painful mammogram. Though both tests are used to detect breast cancer, each test has a different purpose.

With thermography we do not have to rely on mammographies. And with the growing controversy on the radiation exposure from repeated mammographies, as well as the not insignificant percentage of false-negative results, thermographic screening becomes increasingly attractive. However, it is always important for women to do a thorough manual evaluation of their own breast tissue, and to have the practitioner do likewise.

A thermogram detects subtle heat changes that point to an area of evolving pathology in the breast. This may or may not be cancer. A mammogram is used to detect a mass that has already formed in the breast, often identified by a cluster of calcium specks. By the time a mammogram locates a tumor, it has been growing for at least 5 years.

Making the decision about getting a thermogram vs. a mammogram should be done with much discussion about risk factors, family history and lifestyle. For example, if you have had many years of normal mammograms, have no family history and have a great lifestyle coupled with a normal thermogram and a normal clinical exam, you may want to consider having a mammogram every three to four years and simply get an annual clinical exam and thermogram. However, if you have a very strong family history, drink alcohol and don't take supplements, you may want to consider annual mammograms in addition to your annual exam and thermogram. If you have a very abnormal thermogram and you have not had a mammogram in several years, you must get a mammogram-and possibly an ultrasound-right away.

The most effective way to find breast cancer is to use all available tools as often as is necessary. For example, a clinical breast exam performed by highly trained fingers can identify 61% of tumors that turn out to be cancer. Adding a mammogram increases the ability to find a cancer up to 84%. Research done in Montreal in the mid '90s demonstrated that adding a thermogram to a breast exam and a conventional mammogram increases the ability to find cancer early-and do something about it-up to 95%. Thermography is not just an either/or test; it is a value-added test that both you and your doctor should learn more about.

Breast Augmentation

Breast augmentation surgery is the most common cosmetic surgery in America. It is estimated that more than 4 million women have undergone breast implant surgery in the U.S. According to the Mayo Clinic breast implants may decrease the ability of mammograms to identify cancer because they can obscure a tumor. Depending on which studies are cited, it's estimated that implants can obscure more than 50% of breast tissue.

The difference comes down to where they are placed. Those inserted below the chest muscle (about 50%) are less likely to obscure tissue than those placed above. Both silicone and gel implants look like white blobs" on the x-ray and may prevent a view of the tissue below. In all cases, instead of the two standard views taken for each breast, four views are taken...adding up to more radiation. The risk of rupture during mammography, although small, is real.

The use of thermography in women who have breast implants is an area that deserves intense investigation. I have seen several women in my office that refused mammograms because they had implants. One woman's thermogram was very abnormal and with much coaxing, she was convinced to obtain a mammogram. Unfortunately, she was found to have cancer in both breasts.

Could this have been detected earlier if she had obtained regular mammograms? Quite possibly. But if women are going to refuse mammograms (for whatever reason, not just because they have implants), at the very least, they should get a thermogram. We need to redefine the meaning of Early Detection.