With October designated as National Breast Cancer Awareness month, I thought it appropriate to initiate a discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of thermography as an alternative to mammograms given that more and more women are seeking non-radiation alternatives for identification of breast anomalies amid a very x-ray happy medical environment.
I myself have never had a mammogram, following in the footsteps of my wise 81 year old mother who once said, “Why look for breast cancer with a test that can actually cause breast cancer?”
If only our conventional medical community made decisions using this much common sense!
By some estimates, up to 20% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States annually are actually caused by the cumulative radiation effects of mammograms which makes the recommendation for annual or semi-annual mammograms after age 40 absolutely ludicrous!
If you don’t have breast cancer when you start screening with mammograms, you probably will years later after all that accumulating radiation exposure over that long period of time!
Another major problem with mammograms is the compression factor which serves to spread any breast cancer that may be present. This from the Cancer Prevention Coalition:
As early as 1928, physicians were warned to handle “cancerous breasts with care— for fear of accidentally disseminating cells” and spreading cancer (7). Nevertheless, mammography entails tight and often painful compression of the breast, particularly in premenopausal women. This may lead to distant and lethal spread of malignant cells by rupturing small blood vessels in or around small, as yet undetected breast cancers.
So, what to do if you need to safely screen for breast cancer?
Thermography, or Medical Infrared Imaging, has been heralded by many in the alternative health community as a safe alternative to mammograms. Indeed, thermography is a very safe and effective breast screening technology as it very accurately identifies the vascular changes associated with breast cancer even well in advance of when a mammogram would identify a problem.
In addition, thermography is a much better choice than mammograms for women who are on hormone replacement, nursing or have fibrocystic, large, dense, or enhanced breasts as there is much difficulty in reading mammograms accurately in these situations. Any type of breast differences do not cause any interpretation difficulties in thermography.
Here’s what Christiane Northrup MD, a fan of thermography, has to say:
“The most promising aspect of thermography is its ability to spot anomalies years before mammography.”
“Today, women are encouraged to get a mammogram, so they can find their breast cancer as early as possible. With thermography as your regular screening tool, it’s likely that you would have the opportunity to make adjustments to your diet, beliefs, and lifestyle to transform your cells before they became cancerous. Talk about true prevention.”
Before you run to the phone and schedule your thermogram, however, there are a few more things you need to know.
Time for the reality check.
Thermography Pitfalls You Need to Know About
While thermography is definitely a helpful and nontoxic approach to detecting breast cancer at any stage, it is not the perfect alternative to mammograms as it is frequently portrayed.
First of all, thermography is rarely covered by medical insurance. As a result, the typical fee of several hundred dollars for the initial screen with a required followup screen costing an additional one or two hundred dollars within 3-6 months is completely out of pocket for the vast majority of patients. A single thermogram each year after the initial 2 screenings is recommended – another expense. For many women, this large personal expense is simply out of the question especially in the current economic environment.
Even in my home state of Florida where the law stipulates that all medical insurance providers provide policyholders with a free mammogram every 2 years for women aged 40-50 and an annual mammogram for women over 50 with no deductible or co-pay required, women still must pay out of pocket as no substitution of a thermogram for a mammogram is permitted.
Thermogram? You Might Be Forced to Have a Mammogram Anyway
A second very real problem with going the thermography route is that you frequently are pressured into getting a mammogram anyway. All that money out of pocket and you still end up getting doused with radiation!
The reason is that thermography is able to detect breast anomalies that are noncancerous and not in any way threatening to health, so women frequently end up at the gynecologist after having a thermogram which identified anything that looked remotely suspicious even something as simple and common as a clogged milk duct.
Once at the gynecologist, women are shocked to learn that a mammogram is almost always required and that trying to substitute a simple breast ultrasound to examine the anomaly identified by thermography is not allowed – unless you have a mammogram first!
Tricky, tricky! Ah, those mammograms are such a nice moneymaker for GYNs; you didn’t actually think they would let you bypass it so easily did you?
A large out of pocket expense for a thermogram only to end up being pressured or even forced to have a mammogram is a source of extreme frustration for women trying to avoid mammograms in the first place.
Are Thermograms Helpful At All?
Given these very real pitfalls, does it make sense for women to use thermography at all? In my opinion, yes, thermograms are an extremely beneficial test.
However, a woman needs to go down that road with her eyes completely open knowing that her battle to forgo mammograms is not necessarily over!
Be sure to have a discussion with your chosen thermographer before the appointment to be sure that he/she has a way for you to get only a breast ultrasound and not a mammogram if a suspicious area is detected.
In my local area, there are thermographers that can provide this service, and others that cannot. Be sure to ask!
My Thermography Adventure
Here’s what happened to me. I got a routine thermogram which discovered a suspicious area which turned out to only be a clogged milk duct (my daughter was weaning at that time) but since we didn’t know what it was when the thermography was done, I was referred for a simple breast ultrasound.
I then discovered to my dismay that no one in town would give me just a breast ultrasound without me first having a mammogram!
Fortunately, coming from a medical family, I was able to circumvent the mammogram madness and get a script for just a breast ultrasound. Even then, the battle wasn’t yet over! When I went in for my breast ultrasound, I was read the riot act about forgoing the mammogram by the attending physician. This, after she admitted that a mammogram was not even an appropriate test for me given that I have what’s called “dense breast tissue”!
She also denied that each mammogram (4 films per breast) exposes a woman to approximately 1 rad (radiation absorbed dose) of exposure – about 1000 higher than a chest x-ray even though this is a clearly documented fact.
Clueless, misinformed docs. They are everywhere my friends!
So use thermography – it is a fantastic diagnostic tool that is clearly superior to mammograms, but be sure to have your ducks in a row about what you will do if anything suspicious is found before you pay all that money out of pocket!
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist