As a surgeon-in-training in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1980s, Michael G. Macon, MD, FACS, participated in a research study comparing two potential breast cancer screening methods: mammography and thermography.
“The hope was that thermography would measure heat throughout the breast and that this would be an indication of abnormalities in the breast, allowing breast surveillance without the need for radiation,” said Dr. Macon. “However, it was clear early on that thermography only measured the heat on the skin’s surface, which does not provide information on possible cancers within the breast. That’s why thermography was abandoned as a breast screening method.”
FDA Alert: Thermography and Safety
Fast forward several decades and Dr. Macon – an accomplished breast surgeon who serves as Medical Director of the Breast Care Program at Yavapai Regional Medical Center (YRMC) – was surprised and concerned when he learned from patients that thermography was being marketed at some centers as an alternative or addition to mammography screening.
Dr. Macon isn’t alone in his concern. In February 2019, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates medical devices used for breast cancer screening, issued a “safety communication” about the use of thermography – also called thermal imaging and infrared breast imaging – in place of mammography. A month later, the FDA released a reminder after receiving reports from healthcare providers and patients that some centers were providing misleading information about thermography.
“Centers that offer both are offering one test that is scientifically proven – mammography – and one test that isn’t, thermography,” said Dr. Macon.
The FDA recommends that women:
- Be aware thermography is not a substitute for mammography.
- Have regular mammograms according to screening guidelines or as discussed with their healthcare provider.
- Talk to their healthcare provider about other ways to detect breast cancer, including clinical breast exams as well as other imaging studies (3-D mammography, breast ultrasound or breast MRI, for example).
Mammography and Radiation
Thermography is often promoted as a painless, safe alternative because it doesn’t involve radiation, as mammography does. According to the American Cancer Society and other healthcare organizations, the benefits of mammography outweigh the small amounts of radiation exposure.
“You get approximately the same amount of radiation while on an airplane flight from Denver to Washington, D.C.,” Dr. Macon said. “Most radiation comes from the sun and is all around us.”
Detecting Breast Cancer Early
About one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetimes, the National Cancer Institute reports. A decline in deaths from breast cancer has been reported in recent years, mostly due to earlier detection through mammography.
“There is absolutely no question that yearly mammograms done at high quality facilities are the best way to detect breast cancer at a small, curable size,” said Dr. Macon. “The YRMC BreastCare Center recommends annual screening mammography begin at age 40.”
Talk to your healthcare provider about the breast screening plan that fits your health history. The latest screening mammography and other breast imaging technologies are available at The BreastCare Center at YRMC at (928) 442-8900 and Prescott Medical Imaging at (928) 771-7577.