What is thermography?
Thermography is a test that uses an infrared camera to detect heat patterns and blood flow in body tissues.
Digital infrared thermal imaging (DITI) is the type of thermography that’s used to diagnose breast cancer. DITI reveals temperature differences on the surface of the breasts to diagnose breast cancer.
The idea behind this test is that, as cancer cells multiply, they need more oxygen-rich blood to grow. When blood flow to the tumor increases, the temperature around it rises.
One advantage is that thermography doesn’t give off radiation like mammography, which uses low-dose X-rays to take pictures from inside the breasts. However, thermography isn’t as effective as mammography at detecting breast cancer.
Keep reading to learn more about how this procedure stacks up against mammography, when it might be beneficial, and what to expect from the procedure.
Is it an alternative to a mammogram?
Thermography has been around since the 1950s. It first caught the interest of the medical community as a potential screening tool. But in the 1970s, a study called the Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project found that thermography was far less sensitive than mammography at picking up cancer, and interest in it waned.
Thermography isn’t considered an alternative to mammography. Later studies have found that it isn’t very sensitive at picking up breast cancer. It also has a high false-positive rate, which means that it sometimes “finds” cancerous cells when there aren’t any present.
And in women who have been diagnosed with cancer, the test is ineffective at corroborating these results. In a 1990 study of more than 10,000 women, almost 72 percent of those who developed breast cancer had had a normal thermogram result.
One problem with this test is that it has trouble distinguishing the causes of increased heat. Although areas of warmth in the breast can signal breast cancer, they can also indicate noncancerous diseases such as mastitis.
Mammography can also have false-positive results, and it can sometimes miss breast cancers. Yet it’s still the most effective method for diagnosing breast cancer early.
Who should get a thermogram?
Thermography has been promoted as a more effective screening test for women under 50 and for those with dense breasts. Mammograms aren’t as sensitive in these two groups.
But because thermography isn’t very good at picking up breast cancer on its own, experts say you shouldn’t use it as a substitute for mammography. The FDA recommends that women only use thermography as an add-on to mammograms for diagnosing breast cancer.
What to expect during the procedure
You may be asked to avoid wearing deodorant on the day of the exam.
You’ll first undress from the waist up, so that your body can become acclimated to the temperature of the room. Then you will stand in front of the imaging system. A technician will take a series of six images — including front and side views — of your breasts. The whole test takes about 30 minutes.
Your doctor will analyze the images, and you’ll receive the results within a few days.
Possible side effects and risks
Thermography is a noninvasive test that uses a camera to take images of your breasts. There is no radiation exposure, no compression of your breasts, and no real risks associated with the test.
Although thermography is safe, there isn’t any evidence to prove it’s effective. The test has a high false-positive rate, meaning that it sometimes finds cancer when none is present. It’s also worth noting that the test isn’t as sensitive as mammography at finding early breast cancer.
How much does it cost?
Medicare does not cover the cost of thermography. Some private health insurance plans might cover part or all of the cost.
Talk to your doctor
Talk to your doctor about your breast cancer risks and your screening options. Organizations like the American Cancer Society and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force each have their own screening guidelines, but all of them recommend mammography for finding breast cancer in its early stages.
A mammogram is still the most effective method for finding breast cancer early. Although mammograms do expose you to small amounts of radiation, the benefits of finding breast cancer outweigh the risks of this exposure. Plus, your technician will do everything possible to minimize your radiation exposure during the test.
Depending on your individual risk for breast cancer, your doctor might advise that you add another test like ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or thermography.
If you have dense breasts, you might want to consider a newer variation of the mammogram, called 3-D mammography or tomosynthesis. This test creates images in thin slices, giving the radiologist a better view of any abnormal growths in your breasts. Studies find that 3-D mammograms are more accurate at finding cancer than standard 2-D mammograms. They also cut down on false-positive results.
Questions to ask your doctor
When deciding on a breast cancer screening method, ask your doctor these questions:
- Am I at high risk for breast cancer?
- Should I get a mammogram?
- When should I start getting mammograms?
- How often do I need to get mammograms?
- Will a 3-D mammogram improve my chances of getting diagnosed early?
- What are the possible risks from this test?
- What happens if I have a false-positive result?
- Do I need thermography or other additional tests to screen for breast cancer?
- What are the benefits and risks of adding these tests?