Breast Thermography 101 – An Overview

What is Breast Thermography?

Breast thermography is an accurate, safe and noninvasive breast cancer screening technique capable of detecting signs of cancer up to ten years earlier than is possible using mammography. The procedure takes only a few minutes, and there is no touching or compression of the breast whatsoever.

Breast thermography uses special infrared-sensitive cameras to digitally record images of the variations in surface temperature of the human breast. It's basically a specialized HDTV night vision camera used to record images of the heat patterns of the breast. The recorded images are called thermograms.

Blood vessels, cysts, other benign sources, and metabolic processes such as growing breast tumors all radiate heat from within the breast. A portion of the radiated heat reaches the surface of the breast, where it composes a stable thermal pattern.

A breast thermography examination consists of recording these thermal patterns and interpreting them according to a strict and complicated analytical procedure. When analyzed properly by highly trained individuals, the images implicitly disclose various pathological and abnormal processes.

The breast's Thermal Score is dependent on the characteristics of more than twenty different thermal signs, which taken together indicates the patient's risk for breast cancer development. The range of scores is divided into five classes. Each class indicates an assessment of the patient's risk. The five classes are Normal, Borderline Normal, Borderline Abnormal, Abnormal, and Severely Abnormal.

How Does Breast Thermography Detect Tumors?

Short answer: Not directly. Breast thermography can detect the possible presence of a tumor through inference by correlating the statistics of 100,000+ symptomatic patients with the observed characteristics of more than twenty qualitative and quantitative thermal signs.

Breast thermography is based on two solid principals. First, departure from the normal thermal symmetry of the two breasts indicates abnormality and the possible presence of serious pathology. Second, and especially important in the earliest detection of breast disorders, pre-cancerous growths and cancerous tumors are characterized by thermographically visible changes in the breast's vascular system.

Thermal Symmetry: Human beings are symmetrical. We have a left side and a right side that in the perfect body, are mirror images of each other. The thermal patterns of two normal, healthy breasts are equally symmetrical uniform temperature distributions interrupted only by the thermal signature of a minimal venous pattern.

The normal functioning of the breast is altered with the presence of a breast disorder, and when the functional behavior of a breast changes, thermal symmetry is lost. The more serious the disorder, the more pronounced are the differences in thermal symmetry of the two breasts. Thermography is the only method available with which we can observe the asymmetry.

Vascular Changes: Developing cancers are characterized by abnormally elevated temperatures (hyperthermia) and hypervascularity. The developing tumor demands blood for both nourishment and cooling, and the body responds by increasing blood circulation to the region of the tumor. Dormant blood vessels are "awakened," blood vessels expand (vasodilation), existing veins migrate to the tumor site, and new blood vessels are created (angiogenesis). The faster the tumor metabolizes, the more additional blood flow is needed to support and cool it, and the more the body responds by amplifying the vascular capability of the breast. All of these changes are clearly visible and recordable with thermography. Again, thermography is the only method available to observe these changes.

Serial Breast Thermography: A breast thermogram is a single snapshot in time of the thermal patterns on the breasts. The degree of thermal asymmetry and vascular characteristics are used to calculate the patient's risk for having developed breast cancer. Serial thermography is the process of undergoing thermographic examinations periodically. Changes in the thermal patterns over a time interval can indicate the onset of a disorder, or monitor the activity of an ongoing process.

Consider the case of a young woman, whose baseline breast thermogram indicates normal and healthy breasts. Each year the woman undergoes a thermography examination, and each year her breasts appear healthy. Then, one examination shows the vein structure in one breast has changed slightly — so slightly that the breast's thermal score maintains its Normal Classification. The other breast remained as it always has. This is probable cause for warning flags. Thermal symmetry is broken and vascular changes have occurred. Careful follow-up of the patient is warranted. While this behavior is often an indication of the presence of pre-cancerous tissue, the ultimate discovery of a tumor requires magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Breast thermography examinations should be as common as the Pap test at a woman's annual gynecological examination.

Common Misunderstandings About Breast Thermography

Breast thermography's ability to detect cancers at their very early stages is based on analyzing thermal symmetry and vascular changes. But, many incorrectly embrace the belief that breast thermography is used only to search for hot spots indicating the presence of a tumor. Others incorrectly cite the technology is not effective in detecting tumors that are deep in the breast, or that breast thermography is not sensitive enough to detect small cancers. Such arguments indicate the lack of knowledge of breast thermography and the solid foundations upon which breast thermography is based. Hot spots may be a thermal sign, but they're only one of more than twenty signs. And, regardless of how small or how deeply embedded a tumor may be, the breast undergoes changes in functional behavior that are visible only with thermography.

Breast Thermography Sounds Great — Any Disadvantages or Limitations?

Breast thermography has suffered from the lack of a standardized interpretation method, which has led to credibility issues. To achieve accurate and credible results, breast thermography images must be interpreted according to a strict and complicated analytical procedure. This is a time-consuming task requiring highly trained individuals.

Unfortunately, some practitioners have seen fit to invent, use, and teach others to use abbreviated methods to analyze the thermal images. Their techniques are flawed and cannot be trusted, because they fail to analyze all of the thermal signs deemed by experts to be vital.

Thermogram Assessment Services (TAS), satisfies the need for a widely available, accurate, easy-to-use, and economical method for interpreting breast thermography examinations. The TAS website provides easy internet access to breast thermography evaluation.

Breast thermography detects signs of breast cancer years before they are otherwise detectable, but does not locate the tumor. A biopsy may be performed only after the location of the tumor is known. Currently, the best solution to this dilemma is Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which is a more sensitive and safer breast imaging technique than mammography.

The Breast Thermography Examination

A breast thermography examination is simple, safe, and painless.

Prior to the actual examination, patients disrobe from the waist up and sit or stand with their arms held away from the body for ten to fifteen minutes. This gives the exposed body surface temperature adequate time to adjust to room temperature - a process called 'thermal equilibration.'

Once the surface temperature of the body equilibrates with the ambient room temperature, images are captured using a special infrared-sensitive camera. Typically, a frontal-view image and two oblique (right and left) thermal images of the breasts are recorded. There is no contact to the body whatsoever.

The images must be evaluated using a strict and objective interpretation method, such as that offered by TAS. The patient is notified of the results, and any recommended follow-up procedures. A sample Examination Report (for the image shown above) may be viewed here.

Insurance Coverage

Insurance companies are famous for not covering that which they can find an excuse to not cover. Breast thermography screening examinations are no exception to this policy. Consequently, patients can expect to be charged for both the examination and interpretation of the images - typically $225, combined.