When it comes to taking care of your body, staying informed about your health is important. One area that is particularly crucial for many people, especially women, is breast health.
Experts say 1 in 8 women in the United States will have breast cancer in their lifetime. Globally, it is the leading cause of cancer death in women. While cancer treatments have improved significantly, breast cancer remains a significant global health concern.
Breast cancer screenings
If you are 40 or older, you probably know the importance of annual screening mammograms. Regular screening mammograms are the gold standard option for early detection of breast cancer.
“Decades of robust research have shown that when people have regular screening mammograms, the risk of dying from breast cancer is reduced by 30% to 40%,” said Vilert Loving, MD, chief of breast imaging with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Thermography is another screening test for breast cancer. Thermograms detect temperature differences within your breast tissue without using radiation. But is it any better than mammograms at detecting breast cancer and saving lives?
Dr. Loving helps break down what thermograms and mammograms are all about, how they differ and what you should know about them.
Thermography: Seeing heat patterns
Thermography might sound like a complex word, but it’s pretty simple.
Think of it like taking a picture. However, instead of using regular light, it captures heat patterns from your body. Thermography uses a special camera called a thermographic camera to measure heat emissions or temperatures on the surface of the breasts.
“These patterns can show areas with more blood flow, which can be a sign of inflammation,” Dr. Loving said. “The thought is that cancer cells require a larger blood supply than non-cancerous cells.”
Mammography: Capturing X-ray images
Mammography is the predominant tool that medical specialists use to check for breast problems. Instead of heat, this technique uses X-rays – invisible light that can pass through our bodies.
“The X-ray beam gives us internal pictures of the tissue within the breast,” Dr. Loving said. “By looking inside the breast, we can spot changes in the structure of the breast tissue, like lumps or masses. This is important because some of these changes could be signs of cancer.”
Critical differences between thermography and mammography
Now that you know a bit about both tests, here are some key differences between them:
1. Radiation exposure
- Thermography: There is no radiation involved, making it a radiation-free option.
- Mammography: X-rays involve a small amount of radiation.
2. Age consideration
- Thermography: It can be used for people of all ages.
- Mammography: Experts recommend mammograms for women aged 40 years or older, or earlier if they are at an above-average risk for breast cancer.
3. Detection sensitivity
- Thermography: It might pick up changes in heat patterns, but it’s not always clear what these changes mean. It doesn’t detect cancer in its early stages. More research is needed to understand its accuracy fully.
- Mammography: It’s a well-established method for detecting breast issues. It detects abnormalities and provides valuable information about their location, size and characteristics.
4. Comfort of procedure
- Thermography: It’s a painless and non-invasive procedure. You stand in front of the camera, and it takes pictures of your heat patterns. Nothing touches your body.
- Mammography: Breast compression during mammograms might cause discomfort for some people, but it’s usually a quick procedure.
Mammograms are the preferred breast cancer screening tool
While thermography has the advantage of being radiation-free and non-invasive, there is no evidence that it diagnoses breast cancer at earlier stages. The heat patterns detected by thermography might not always provide clear and reliable information.
“The greatest reduction of death is observed when people undergo annual screening mammograms,” Dr. Loving said. “Currently, thermograms are not achieving their goal of effectively screening for breast cancer.”
For these reasons, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that thermograms are not a substitute for mammograms and that people should not replace regular mammograms with thermography.
“The FDA closely monitors any facility that performs mammograms to ensure that the standard quality of care is provided, but there are no quality standards for thermography,” Dr. Loving noted.
Mammograms do expose people to a very low level of radiation. However, the benefit of potentially discovering cancer significantly outweighs this small radiation risk. According to the American Cancer Society, the average total dose of radiation for a typical mammogram is equal to about two months of what we all receive from our natural surroundings.
It’s always important to discuss your options with your health care provider. However, due to their proven effectiveness, mammography is generally considered better than thermography for breast cancer screening.