Thermography Goes Mainstream

Here is an interesting update on Thermography as a screening technique for breast cancer from the May 2003 issue of Medical Imaging Magazine.

Thermography may be the oldest kid on the block of mammography complements. The FDA first approved thermography in 1982, and several companies have new scanners in the FDA pipeline. Still, many surgeons and radiologists remain a bit skeptical about thermography in diagnosing breast cancer.

The basics of thermography are fairly simple. During the scan, an infrared camera records thermal images of the breast that can be used to detect the physiologic changes that characterize breast cancer — angiogenesis and neovascularity. During the process of tumor formation, the tumor creates its own blood supply; blood vessels dilate and additional capillaries develop. A lesion becomes clinically significant when it begins to recruit its own blood supply. Thermography can identify the abnormal thermal patterns associated with malignancies and other breast pathologies. Abnormal scans are referred to physicians for clinical correlation.

Thermography can be used as a screening adjunct to mammography. Lynn Marshall, R.N., B.S.N., and co-owner of Clinical Thermography of Colorado (Denver) reports, By itself, thermography is 86 to 90 percent effective in screening for breast cancer. Studies show that the combination of thermography and mammography can raise the rate to 98 percent. It is believed that infrared cameras can detect lesions as small as 2 to 3 mms.

Clinical Thermography of Colorado opened its doors in July 2002 and uses Meditherm’s (Lake Oswego, Ore.) Digital Infrared Thermal Imaging system. Scans are non-invasive and complete in 15 minutes; physicians trained to read thermograms read the scans offsite. Marshall notes, “Physician acceptance has been higher than I anticipated.” In fact, some local physicians are referring patients for thermography. One surgeon recognized the value of thermography after a patient elected a double mastectomy based on her thermogram, which revealed abnormal patterns in both breasts. After the surgery, the surgeon found that the patient’s thermogram matched the pathology report. A number of patients are women who have had mastectomies and need to monitor remaining breast tissue, but don’t want to be compressed during a mammogram. Other patients have cancer and want to monitor their condition.

Insurers are slowly coming on board as well, and some are reimbursing women for their scans. Marshall concludes, “Thermography is not the ‘be all’ in breast imaging, but it should be in the arsenal.”

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