Thermography: A hot idea for breast health |

Thermography: A hot idea for breast health

Scott Rollins
Free Press Health Columnist


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When it comes to cancer, early detection saves lives. Digital infrared thermal imaging or thermography is a safe and painless 15-minute test that could save your life. It offers the chance to detect breast cancer much sooner and more accurately than physical examination or mammograms alone.


About 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will develop invasive breast cancer. The risk doubles if you have a first-degree relative with cancer, although only about 15% of women with breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it. About 5-10% of breast cancers are linked to inherited genetic mutations, which increase the chance of developing breast cancer to as much as 80%.

Current screening procedures include physical examination by a physician and mammograms. Both of these techniques are looking for structural, anatomical changes such as a palpable lump or an abnormality found only with X-ray. Ultrasound or MRI scan are two other studies that are used to further evaluate suspicious breast lumps.

One problem with anatomical screening is that many breast cancers are simply missed. False-negative results occur when mammograms appear normal even though breast cancer is present. According to the National Cancer Institute about 20% of breast cancer is missed on a mammogram.

Recent criticism of mammograms has also focused on the false-positive results in which the study findings suggest an abnormality when no cancer is actually present. This often leads to further imaging and invasive biopsies or surgeries.

The authors of a 2009 Cochrane Database Review of breast cancer screening and mammography sum up the false-positive issue stating that “screening led to 30 percent over-diagnosis and overtreatment, or an absolute risk increase of 0.5 percent. This means that for every 2,000 women screened for 10 years, one will have her life prolonged, and 10 healthy women who would not have been diagnosed if they had not been screened, will be treated unnecessarily.”

There are also concerns of mammograms actually increasing the risk of cancer due to radiation exposure, particularly in younger premenopausal women. Equally important is the fact that breast cancer has been present for many years by the time it is found with exam or mammogram.


Thermography is the process of measuring heat with an infrared imaging device. Cancer tends to present with increases in blood flow, metabolism or inflammation, all of which cause heat that is easily monitored with thermography.

The first use of diagnostic thermography came in 1957 when R. Lawson discovered that the skin temperature over a cancer in the breast was higher than that of normal tissue. Research on breast thermography started in the 1950s and now more than 800 peer-reviewed studies can be found in the medical literature. FDA approval was granted in 1982.

Studies show that a persistent abnormal breast thermogram is the single most important marker of high risk for developing breast cancer and has the ability to detect the first signs that a cancer may be forming up to 10 years before any other procedure can detect it. Because of earlier detection it increases the survival rate of breast cancer patients by about 60%.

Breast thermography is 10 times more significant as a future risk indicator for breast cancer than a first order family history of the disease; has only a 10% false-positive or false-negative rate; and when combined with physical exam and mammogram, 95% of early stage breast cancers are detected.

One has to wonder then, why aren’t breast thermograms used more commonly? Despite dozens of very good, very favorable studies, it only took one from the 1970s to turn the tide against breast thermography. The Breast Cancer Detection and Demonstration Project (BCDDP) is the primary reason for the decreased use of infrared imaging.

The study results were seriously flawed in numerous respects, but perhaps most of all was the influence of other research findings at the time that over-exaggerated the role of thermography. This led to the false perspective that thermography might replace mammograms, even though this was never suggested by the BCDDP authors.

The BCDDP study suffered from using untrained technicians doing the scans, radiologists with little to no training in reading thermograms, and no formal protocol for reading the thermograms. Many scans were done in poor conditions in which the heat in the exam rooms was not controlled, leading to poor images.

With the development of sophisticated imaging technology, computer software to analyze and track images, control of exam room conditions, established training and protocols for thermogram interpretations, this poorly performed 30-year-old study should not be used to determine the value of thermography.


Despite the large amount of positive data in support of breast thermography, most physicians are hesitant to recommend it as a routine screening test. Perhaps this is due to a lack of understanding of how thermograms are best utilized, combined with an unawareness of the research backing the use of breast thermography.

Thermograms are not yet part of the hospital-based imaging services and insurance does not routinely cover thermography screening. Currently, the only way to get a thermogram is through specialized imaging centers or offices. We offer breast or whole-body thermography at the IMC and no physician order is required to get scanned.

Our thermography technicians have advanced training and years of experience. The use of state-of-the-art camera systems with advanced computer software for image manipulation and comparison provides excellent image quality. Board-certified radiologists with specific training in reading thermograms review the images.

Breast thermography is an inexpensive and easy way to increase your chance of finding breast cancer early, or better yet finding changes so early you might intervene and stop cancer before it really gets started. If you are interested in more information or in getting an appointment for a thermography scan, call the IMC at 970-245-6911.

Scott Rollins, M.D., is board certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado ( and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics ( Call 970-245-6911 for appointments or more information.

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