Breast cancer screening can identify breast cancer before a person notices any physical symptoms. Early detection can enable a person to undergo less invasive treatments with better outcomes.
Health authorities and doctors recommend regular screening with mammography for women, depending on their age and individual risk factors.
However, some facilities offer thermography as an alternative to mammography.
What is thermography, and it is a better way to screen for breast cancer? Find out more in this article.
Thermography uses a type of infrared technology that detects and records temperature changes on the surface of the skin.
It can help screen for breast cancer. A thermal infrared camera takes a picture of the areas of different temperature in the breasts. The camera displays these patterns as a sort of heat map.
When a cancerous growth develops, there may be excessive formation of blood vessels and inflammation in the breast tissue. These show up on the infrared image as areas with a higher skin temperature.
Providers of thermography recommend this method for the following reasons:
- It is a noninvasive, noncontact procedure that does not involve compressing the breast.
- It does not involve exposure to radiation, and people can use it safely over time.
- It can detect vascular changes in breast tissue that may indicate the presence of breast cancer many years before other methods of screening can.
- It can detect changes in breasts with dense tissue and implants.
- Hormonal and menstrual changes do not affect the procedure or the results.
Providers of thermography note that the technique does not detect cancer. It can only alert a person to changes that may need further investigation.
It also has disadvantages. For example, the information it provides is limited. Although it can show changes in heat and vascular features, it does not show how the breast has changed.
It can also show changes that are not cancerous, and undergoing a standard mammogram may be necessary to clarify the results. Also, sometimes, thermography does not reveal cancerous changes that are present.
In 2012, researchers reviewing the literature on thermography for breast cancer screening expressed concern about the high rates of false-positive and false-negative results.
“Thermography is not sufficiently sensitive to be used as a screening test for breast cancer, nor is it useful as an indicator of risk developing within 5 years. Currently, there is not sufficient evidence to support the use of thermography in breast cancer screening.”
Also, medical insurance often does not cover the cost of thermography, whereas it will often pay for regular mammogram screening.
A mammogram is a kind of X-ray. It involves compressing the breast between two metal plates and taking an X-ray image of the breast tissue.
The image can show if there are any unusual changes or masses in the breast tissue that may need further investigation.
It is the most common way of screening for breast cancer, and the information it provides can save lives. However, it can also have some disadvantages, which we will discuss in the sections below.
Learn more about mammograms here.
Research suggests that having a regular mammogram can save lives.
Scientists looking at data from 1960–2014 concluded that undergoing regular mammography screening can reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer by 19% overall.
Factors affecting who will benefit from regular mammograms include:
- whether the person has a personal or family history of breast cancer
- the presence of certain genetic factors, such as changes in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes
- their age
- how often they undergo screening
- how dense their breast tissue is, as this may affect the resulting image
The American College of Physicians (ACP) recommend that women start talking to their doctor about screening from the age of 40 years. Their doctor will suggest screening based on the individual’s personal factors.
The ACP also recommend that all women with an average risk undergo mammography screening once every 2 years from the age of 50–74 years.
That said, other organizations — such as the American Cancer Society — make different recommendations. A doctor can suggest the best option for each person.
Learn more about how age affects the risk of breast cancer.
Mammography can come with some risks. However, the recommendations on when and how often a person should undergo screening take these risks into consideration.
Regular testing means repeated exposure to low levels of radiation, which may increase the risk of cancer slightly.
Also, the results may be less accurate for women with dense breast tissue or breast implants. This is because dense breast tissue can appear white on the mammography image, which can mask the presence of tumors, as these also appear as white.
Low density fatty tissue, on the other hand, appears gray on the image, making it easier to see any changes.
Mammography can be uncomfortable, as it involves compressing the breasts. For this reason, it is best to avoid undergoing screening just before menstruation, when the breasts can be more tender than usual.
Providers of thermography screening say that it is reliable and harmless, but research suggests that is it less likely to be less accurate than mammography.
Data from a 4-year phase of one study indicated that thermography accurately detected only 43% of breast cancers.
In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that homeopathic clinics, health spas, and other facilities are offering thermography as an alternative to mammography.
However, they note that there is no scientific evidence to support this use of thermography, and they urge people to attend regular mammography as their doctor recommends.
The FDA issued the following warning:
“There is no valid scientific data to demonstrate that thermography devices, when used on their own or with another diagnostic test, are an effective screening tool for any medical condition including the early detection of breast cancer or other diseases and health conditions.”
Women should speak to their doctor about breast cancer screening from around the age of 40 years, and they should follow their doctor’s recommendations about screening.
Scientists suggest that although people may use thermography to complement other methods of screening and diagnosis, they should also use mammography to confirm the results.
I am confused because my doctor tells me I should have a mammogram every 2 years, but my friends say I should worry about radiation. They say that thermography is better because there is no radiation. Is this true?
For cancer detection, doctors recommend having a mammogram every 2 years depending on a person’s age range and risk level. I would heed the doctor’s advice.
Mammograms involve a small amount of radiation but not enough for one instance of the test to cause damage to the cells.
The benefits far outweigh the risks. As this article highlights, thermography may have its advantages, but there is not enough research or evidence to support its use as a standard of care for cancer diagnosis.
Christina Chun, MPH Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.