Last year sometime I had a cancer scare. Nothing major, but scary nonetheless. I found a tiny abnormality in my breast. It was small, hard, and unmovable (not good things). And, my Mom’s had breast cancer a few times so my doctors were rightfully on high alert. I got a mammogram, which is currently the most commonly recommended and widely accepted screening tool for breast cancer. But, like with many younger women, my breasts were too dense to really see anything. So, I got an ultrasound next. It ultimately ended up being a hormonal, benign cyst, but it reinforced my interest in preventative measures and different screening tools for breast cancer.
(These are not my boobs, but I now have numerous pictures like this of my own boobs thanks to thermography. Read on.)
I had heard about thermography for a number of years and was always curious about it. So, I was excited to learn more from Caitlin Wells, a local Thermography Technician, who reached out to us a few months ago.
There is no argument out there that breast cancer screening itself is a generally positive thing. There is however great debate on everything else surrounding breast cancer screening. What tool should be used? Who does it really help? When should women start getting screened? How often should they go? My Mom had breast cancer for the first time in her early 30’s and I’ve gotten five, count em’ five, different recommendations from five different doctors on when I should start getting mammograms.
During a mammogram, the breasts are compressed between two plates (it’s not actually as horrible as my mom made it sound) and an X-ray is taken of the breast tissue. The images captured are called mammograms. Like I mentioned earlier, many younger women have denser breasts and this dense tissue appears white on the mammogram images which can potentially hide tumors which also appear white. Additionally, mammograms equal radiation and there is a great debate on how much radiation is too much. So, while, mammograms are best practice, there are many out there working to explore alternative or supplemental screening options like thermography.
Thermography has been used for breast cancer detection since 1956. It was cleared by the FDA in 1982 as an adjunctive procedure for breast cancer screening. Thermography is a test that detects and records temperature changes on the skin. An infrared camera takes a picture of your breasts and then the camera produces a heat map-like picture of the area. A cancerous growth=inflammation in the tissue=higher skin temperature.
Proponents of thermography suggest that by continuously monitoring the temperature of the breasts (or any area of the body) a clinician can observe temperature changes and pick up on developing areas of inflammation and a host of issues including potentially cancerous tumors. There is emerging reserach to support thermography as an adjunctive screening tool such as a 2008 study at the New York Presbyterian Hospitalin Cornell published in the American Journal of Surgery showing a 97% sensitivity using thermography. Caitlin told us it is recommended that you get two thermography screenings back to back to establish a baseline, and then come every six months to monitor changes in the body.
The process is really simple. You walk into a room with Caitlin and go behind a curtain of sorts and remove your shirt and bra if you wear one (men get breast cancer too). You sit there for 15 minutes waiting for your body temperature to adjust and stabilize. Caitlin will sit on the other side of the said curtain and chat with you. She’s friendly and an easy talker. Then, she takes a few pictures and it’s done. Cailtin sends the pictures to a team of three different doctors that look at the images to give their perspective on what they’re seeing. Later she sets up a 30-minute follow-up call and explains your results.
My results were inconclusive, meaning they may have seen an area with a small constellation of higher temperatures, or maybe not. I was told to see my doctor and follow-up with her which I’m doing next month. I’m interested to hear my Doc's perspective on what she’s seeing and follow-up steps. I will update you updated.
The benefits of thermography, as explained to us by Caitlin, include that the screening is non-invasive (your breasts don’t get smashed), there is no radiation, and it works for those with dense breast tissue. Caitlin also told us that thermography tests have the potential to pick up on changes that wouldn’t yet appear on a mammogram.
It’s important to note that no one, including Caitlin, is suggesting that thermography totally replace a mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy. What Caitlin, and other thermography techs, are suggesting is that this is a preventive tool that may cut down on the number of mammograms a woman needs, and/or might catch something before other screening would pick up on it.
I think what I did was interesting, but I think to really get a better understanding and to be able to use this tool most effectively I would need to get the second baseline screen and then follow-up every 6-months. In my perspective, it seems like the tool is really good at monitoring changes over time in the body temperature, but one snapshot is harder to interrupt because there is no baseline for what your body heat map looks like normally. In a world where information really is power, this seems to be one more tool that can provide us with information on the body over time.
If you're interested in holistic or alternative health, are younger than 40, have dense breasts, or are just curious and want more information about your body and health, this might be good for you. You can schedule with Caitlin here. As a side, inflammation causes many issues in the body, not just cancer so this tool can be used for a number of things that were not talked about in this article. To learn more reach out to Caitlin or check out her Facebook or Instagram.