Munch more broccoli; loose weight; stay away from alcohol; eat flax seeds every day…. And have a regular mammogram. Yes, of course, I’m talking about preventing breast cancer. Every year, in every corner of the planet, over a million women hear the shocking words… “you have breast cancer”. Almost 2,300 of those women live in New Zealand, and each year, 600 of the women previously diagnosed with breast cancer loose their battle with the disease.
Women live in fear of largely female killer, and sitting in the waiting room before a mammogram is guaranteed to cause high blood pressure, rapid heart beat and sweaty palms!
Mammograms are breast X-rays which allow us to find anatomical changes in the breast… lumps which may or may not be cancerous. Screening programs such as the one we have in New Zealand, regularly examine the breasts of healthy women in the hope of finding cancerous lumps in their early stages, before they have spread to lymph nodes and beyond. Despite their sensitivity, by the time a mammogram finds a breast cancer, it may have already been growing for up to ten years, and have experienced 25 doublings of the malignant cluster of cells. Mammograms are imperfect, especially so in premenopausal women under the age of 50. Women in this group still have dense breast tissue that make it more difficult to detect early cancerous changes. Post menopausal women using hormone replacement therapy are equally tricky to diagnose.
These two groups account for many of the erroneous diagnoses made through mammography every year. Being told that you have a cancerous lump when you don’t, is termed a “false positive”… And it’s pretty devastating. Even more devestating is the seemingly lucky woman told that her mammogram is all clear, when in fact there is a tiny tumour lurking undetected in the depth of her breast. … this is a “false negative” result.
In women aged 40 – 49 studies suggest that as many as 25% of breast cancers fail to show up in a mammogram. Imagine if there was a breast screening technique which was completely non-invasive (e.g. didn’t involve squashing your breasts as flat as a pancake between two metal plates); did not exposure your breasts to dangerous radiation; had a very low incidence of false positive and false negative results … and best of all, could tell you of an increased risk of developing breast cancer, up to ten years before developing a tumour big enough to be seen on a mammogram.
Well, you don’t have to imagine for long. It’s here, in New Zealand, and it’s called Breast Thermography. While very few women have heard of this breast screening technique, it’s far from the new kid on the block internationally. In fact, breast thermography has been researched for over 30 years, with over 800 peer-reviewed scientific studies published. These have involved examination of over 250,000 women, many of whom have been followed up for over 12 years. Twenty seven years ago the American FDA approved thermography for breast cancer detectcion, and risk assessment, when used alongside mammography.
So what is thermography and how does it work?
A mammogram is an anatomical examination of the breast, looking for anatomical changes (a lump). Thermography on the other hand is all about looking at the physiology (biology) of your breast. A heat sensitive infrared camera is used to photograph both breasts, from several different angles. The camera shows the heat patterns eminating from breast tissue (what is called infrared radiation).
All living tissue emits heat, and in healthy breasts the pattern of heat should be comparable in both breasts. Long before a breast tumour is evident to the eye, the touch, or even a mammogram, breast tissue begins to change its biology. Chemical and blood vessel activity increases, as cancerous tumours are biologically “greedy”, demanding a great deal of extra nutritients and blood flow. Long before a tumour forms, the breast tissue increases blood circulation to the problem area. This generates an increased heat in the breast, which can be detected by sensitive infrared cameras. By comparing the heat radiation of the breasts, differences can be detected and analysed by sophisticated computers. Stunningly, heat abnormalities can be detected up to ten years before a tumour can be found through mammography.
Once a baseline thermography has been taken, subsequent annual photographs can detect minute heat changes indicating a developing breast problem. Increased breast heat is not always indicative of a forming or present breast cancer. Sometimes non cancerous conditions such as mastitis, or fibrocystic breast disease (hormonal lumps) are the cause of the change thermal patterns. Just as an abnormal mammogram requires further investigation, such as a biopsy or ultrasound, abnormal thermograms require more detailed investigation.
Regular breast thermography allows a woman to keep a close eye on her breast health, not only by detecting breast tumours at a very early stage, but by discovering signs of abnormal changes up to a decade before a breast tumour appears. This allows for vigilant monitoring through self and clinical examination, mammography and ultrasound, and detection of tumours at their very earliest stage. While a “hot breast” may sound a bizarre way of determinging breast cancer risk, the truth is that studies have repeatedly shown that an abnormal infrared image is the single most important marker of a high risk for developing breast cancer – 10 times more significant than having a close female relative (mother, sister, daughter) with breast cancer.
If your thermograms repeatedly return an abnormal result, your risk of developing breast cancer in the future increases by a massive 22 times. Does that mean that all women should stop having mammograms, and instead place their hope of early detection of breast cancer in the hands of thermography? No, this is definitely not the “take home message”. The FDA, scientists, doctors and responsible thermographers all agree that a womans best chance of early detection comes from combining mammographic screening with annual thermography. Together, studies suggest breast cancer survival rates are increased by 61%. Mammography and Thermography combined result in a 95% detection rate for early stage breast cancers.
Article courtesy of Lynda Wharton, Acupuncturist, Naturopath and Health Researcher