Breast Thermography Can Not Replace Mammograms

Dana Casciotti, PhD, Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund

In June 2011 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to women who undergo breast cancer screening:  Do not replace mammograms with thermograms.

Thermograms are pictures of the breast made with a special type of camera (an infrared camera) that shows patterns of heat and blood flow near the surface of the breast.  Supporters of thermography say that these pictures can help doctors see new blood vessel growth, the very earliest sign that a tumor could develop.  Supporters also claim the pictures help identify very early tumors that are not big enough to find with other screening tests.  Thermograms are less painful than mammograms because they do not require squeezing the breast, and they also don’t expose the breast to radiation.  This sounds great, but does it really work?

Early detection of breast cancer is very important because it can save lives and reduce the need for mastectomy (surgery to remove the breast) or chemotherapy.  However, the FDA said there is currently not any “valid scientific data to show that thermographic devices, when used on their own, are an effective screening tool for any medical condition including the early detection of breast cancer or other breast disease.”[1]

Some research shows that thermography might be useful in combination with mammography, especially for women with dense breasts.[2,3] With mammography, dense breast tissue looks white and so does a cancerous tumor, so it is often hard to detect cancer.  Younger women tend to have denser breasts, so mammography in combination with thermography might be more accurate, especially for young women at high risk of breast cancer because of close relatives with breast cancer. Breast cancer screening is not recommended for young women with an average risk of breast cancer.[1]

More research on thermography should be done to determine whether it is truly useful for early detection.  As mentioned above, thermography can identify the earliest signs of tumor growth.  However, these early signs do not necessarily mean breast cancer will develop and they are generally too early to require treatment. Even though it is an easy procedure that simply takes a picture of the breast, its risks might outweigh the benefits if it results in unnecessary follow-up and treatment. That’s why more research is needed to determine if thermography can replace mammography for breast cancer screening.

The FDA is worried that ads for thermography facilities, web sites, and mobile units are misleading women. For example, here is an ad that calls breast thermography “the safe alternative to mammography.” That is not true. Thermography may be a safer test since it does not expose women to radiation, but there is not enough evidence that it is effective and can be used alone for breast cancer screening.

References:

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Thermographic Imaging Systems for Breast Cancer Screening: FDA Safety Communication. June 2, 2011.  Accessed on 6/8/11 http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm257707.htm.
  2. Arora N, Martins D, Ruggerio D, et al. (2008).  Effectiveness of a noninvasive digital infrared thermal imaging system in the detection of breast cancer. Am J Surg. Oct;196(4):523-6.
  3. Kennedy DA, Lee T, Seely D (2009). A comparative review of thermography as a breast cancer screening technique. Integr Cancer Ther. Mar;8(1):9-16.