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Mammography vs. thermography

What to know about these screening tools

You might have heard that thermograms are a painless and non-invasive procedure that can help catch breast cancer without radiation. Certain practitioners even claim that thermograms are able to detect breast cancer before traditional mammograms can.

Mammograms vs. thermograms

However, mammograms—not thermograms—are still the best way to check for signs of breast cancer. Here’s what you should know about thermography and why you shouldn’t switch your routine mammogram for a thermogram instead.

Breast thermography is an infrared imaging test that shows patterns of heat and blood flow at or near the skin surface. The rationale for using thermography to detect breast cancer is that cancer tissues have faster metabolism and increased blood flow, so they produce higher temperatures than normal breast tissue. 

Thermography, unfortunately, often produces misleading results. It may suggest that cancer exists when it does not, or it may miss cancer that actually exists. This misleading information could result in a delayed diagnosis of cancer or unnecessary medical follow-up. No valid evidence supports the use of thermography as a stand-alone test for breast cancer screening or diagnosis.

Mammography is still best screening tool

A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray picture of the breast that is commonly used in-clinic for breast cancer screening and diagnosis. While debates are ongoing about when and how often to use it, most well-respected health care organizations agree that mammography is the safest and most effective screening tool to detect breast cancer. A mammogram is the only test that has been proven to increase the chances of surviving breast cancer.

Thermography is not an alternative

Thermography is not endorsed by the American Cancer Society or the American College of Radiology. It has been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but only for use with another screening or diagnostic test, like mammography. 

Because some facilities provide information that can mislead patients into believing that thermography is an alternative or better option than mammography, the FDA recently issued a warning that thermography should not be used as a stand-alone tool for breast cancer detection.

Dr. Jennifer Wang and Dr. Wendi Owen are UK Markey Cancer Center radiologists.

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