Commonly Asked Questions

What is breast thermography?

Breast thermography—the technical term for what we call Thermascan—is a safe, pain-free, and effective breast-imaging diagnostic procedure that can greatly increase your chances of identifying breast cancer at its earliest stages. This FDA-approved technology involves measuring minute variations in temperature at the surface of the skin, and unlike mammography, there is no radiation exposure.  The technology is safe even for pregnant and nursing women. A 2002 medical report concluded that thermography is “a good, and perhaps the best, method for risk assessment in breast cancer…the presence of an abnormal asymmetric infrared heat pattern of the breasts probably increases a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer at least ten-fold.”


Why should I consider Thermascan?

Women with dense breasts and any woman under age 50, in particular, should consider Thermascan before any other screening method.  One reason for this is that mammography is not very effective in women with dense breasts and in younger women.  If breast thermography detects a suspicious spot, an ultrasound (ultrasonography) is indicated to confirm the reading.  If the ultrasound confirms the presence of a mass, then either an MRI or mammogram , or both, could be considered.  Women with mutations in the BRCA genes, BRCA1 or BRCA2, are also excellent candidates for breast thermography. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes. When they are mutated, they no longer suppress abnormal growth, and cancer is more likely to develop. Some research indicates that low-level radiation exposure from mammography may further increase breast cancer risk in women who have inherited the BRCA mutations.


When should I begin undergoing breast thermography?

In November 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women should wait until age 50 to get the first mammogram and then get one every two years.  Women having annual exams beginning before age 50 may expose themselves to excessive radiation, and the physical pressure of mammography could rupture an existing tumor and trigger metastasis, as reported in the 25 May 2009 Archives of Internal Medicine.  Since mammography is no longer part of standard guidelines for women under age 50, breast thermography represents a viable option for these younger women in particular and we recommend that they begin annual Thermascans at age 40.  For women who have a strong family history of breast cancer or who have an abnormal BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, we recommend an initial thermogram at age 25 and again at age 35, then annually after age 40.  For women over age 50, we recommend that mammography be performed every other year with thermography on alternate years.


What if you’re over 50 and don’t have dense breasts?

In this case you should consider mammography in combination with Thermascan. Researchers at Ville Marie Breast and Oncology Center, at McGill University (Ontario, Canada) observed that when a mammogram was conducted on patients with suspicious clinical examinations, the sensitivity was found to be 83%.   In contrast, the sensitivity for mammography was only 66%.  However, the combination of thermography and mammography together increased the sensitivity to 93%.  When these two methods were considered in conjunction with clinical examination of the breasts, the sensitivity was found to be 98%. This is why oncologists are increasingly recommending the combination of mammography and thermography—especially for older women who have more fatty tissue in their breasts (i.e., less dense breasts).  Note: “Sensitivity” is a statistical term referring to the percentage of women who are correctly identified as having breast cancer.


How does a Thermascan work?

Breast thermography is based on the principle that certain biochemical activities in pre-cancerous tissue and in the area surrounding a developing breast tumor are almost always higher than in the normal breast. Increased activity and blood flow result in an increase in surface temperatures in those particular parts of the breast.  The technology uses an ultra-sensitive infrared camera and sophisticated computer software to detect very subtle variations in the temperature and vascular pattern of the breasts. With the help of this technology, changes in vascular patterns and breast temperatures can be detected and analyzed, and high-resolution diagnostic images are generated. This information provides your physician with valuable data concerning the condition of your breast. “Hot spots”, which show up as bright colors on the scan—or thermogram—can be signs of increased vascular activity as would be seen in a tumor and would then merit further investigation, typically by ultrasound. If an ultrasound or MRI confirms the findings, then your physician may recommend getting a biopsy to determine whether the tissue is malignant.


How effective is breast thermography?

Breast thermography enables the earliest detection possible. Signs of possible breast cancer or pre-cancerous growth may be detected up to 10 years prior to being discovered using other methods.   Because of breast thermography's unique sensitivity, the temperature variations and vascular changes picked up by this technology may be among the earliest signs of breast cancer.  Research has shown that an abnormal infrared image is the single most important marker of high risk for developing breast cancer. According to a 2001 report in the International Journal of Fertility and Women's Medicine, “an abnormal thermal sign, in the light of our present knowledge of breast cancer, is ten times as important an indication as is family history data.”   Moreover, a persistent or repeat abnormal thermogram carries with it a 22-fold higher risk of future breast cancer.


What does an abnormal thermogram mean?

An abnormal thermogram (or positive infrared scan) does not automatically mean that a patient has breast cancer.  Other conditions may also cause hot spots including benign tumors, fibrocystic breast disease, mastitis, superficial blood vessels and others.  Each infrared image can be viewed as a kind of fingerprint, a unique infrared map of each individual’s breasts. Over the course of months to years, any change in this infrared map can constitute an early sign of a breast health problem.


If I have an abnormal thermogram, what’s the next step?

With an abnormal thermogram, it is recommended that patients undergo a breast ultrasound in order to determine whether you have a cyst or mass of some kind.  We use several effective, non-invasive strategies to eliminate cysts and prevent future cysts from forming.  If it’s a mass, then a biopsy may be indicated.  If there is no cyst or mass, there is still room for concern because of the presence of the temperature increase, which in turn could reflect the earliest phases of cancer development, according to the International Academy of Clinical Thermology. The point is that, with any abnormal thermogram, you can still be proactive and adopt an anti-cancer self-care program on a precautionary basis. And if you are at higher risk of metastatic breast cancer, you should consider getting a panel of a MUC1 mucin (commonly measured as CA15.3 or sometimes CA27.29) and CEA (+/- ESR), as this panel remains the most established way to monitor metastatic breast cancer.  Certainly, we would recommend that you schedule follow-up Thermascan visits on a regular basis.  If you are already working with an Integrative Medicine physician who is familiar with anti-cancer strategies and holistic hormonal management, that physican should be helpful in making recommendations that are relevatnt to an abnromal thermogram.  If you are not working with such a physician, you may contact Dr. Pittman at the Carolina Center for Integrative Medicine.  Regardless, we do recommend that you share your Thermascan results with your primary care provider. 


What’s the main benefit of thermography?

The practical benefit of thermography is that you can head off breast cancer well in advance—enabling you to put a stop to the growth and progression of breast cancer long before it becomes a reality, or to treat cancer at an early stage, when it is most curable.  With thermography, you not only pick up a potential cancer, but also can detect the physiological conditions that indicate a high risk of developing cancer in the first place.  You can then take steps to ward off a problem that would only be picked up much later by mammography.  By using anti-cancer nutrition, herbal therapy, and other integrative medicine strategies, you can improve your chances of avoiding the development and progression of cancer.

Many studies have confirmed that detecting breast cancer at the earliest and most curable stage translates into more effective treatment. When added to regular breast health checkups, the survival rate for breast cancer is likely to be at least 61% higher due to earlier detection.  Cure rates greater than 95% are possible when the disease is detected early.  Breast thermography therefore represents an excellent opportunity for early detection and successful treatment of breast cancer.


Why hasn’t my doctor recommended breast thermography?

Thermography was first introduced as a screening tool in 1956 and was initially well accepted by the medical community.   From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, it was widely believed that thermography would hold the key to breast cancer detection, but then a major study in 1977 found thermography to lag behind mammography and other screening tools. Because of this one study, the medical profession lost interest in this diagnostic approach. At the present time, several tools are widely used to screen for breast cancer.  These tools include clinical breast exams, mammograms, and ultrasound (ultrasonography).

Nevertheless, thermography is starting to regain traction in the oncology community.  A 2009 review of the evidence, published in Integrative Cancer Therapies (ICT), concluded that the above-mentioned 1977 study was flawed, implying that thermography may have been dismissed prematurely. “No single tool provides excellent predictability; however, a combination that incorporates thermography may boost both sensitivity and specificity,” the ICT review concluded. 


Why not just rely on mammography?

The prevailing view that mammography is the best tool for screening women for breast cancer is now in question. First, several studies have found that mammography may actually increase the risk of breast cancer, probably because of the high radiation exposure that results.  Women under 40 who get annual mammograms may actually increase their risk of dying from breast cancer, according to a 2005 report in the British Journal of Cancer.   This risk may be further heightened for women with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (who are already at increased risk).   As stated in a 2004 report on the cancer-promoting potential of mammography, “[T]he risks associated with mammography screening may be approximately five times higher than previously assumed.”

In addition to the radiation risk, there has been some concern that the physical pressure of mammography could rupture an existing tumor, thereby causing metastasis. This risk is completely avoided with thermography, which involves no direct contact. As one physician stated in the 25 May 2009 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, “Mammography subjects the tissue in the breast to radiation.  Radiation induces DNA damage, increasing the risk of tumor initiation. In addition, many women report pain from compression of the breast for mammography, suggesting that tissue damage may occur during this process. Cell division is induced as part of repair of tissue damage, and dividing cells are more susceptible to transformation than quiescent cells.”   Unlike mammography, breast thermography is non-invasive, involves no harmful radiation, and does not involve “slamming your breast in a drawer”—which is how many women have described the painful experience of getting a mammogram.


Doesn’t mammography pick up cancer better than other methods?

Although it is true that mammography can find breast cancer earlier than breast self-examination, that claim really doesn’t amount to much, because the self-exam method is considered to be the least reliable way to monitor oneself for possible cancer.  Mammography is limited in that cancer, like breast tissue, appears white on the X-ray, and for this reason lesions are more difficult to detect in younger women and any woman with dense breast tissue. A tumor may not cast a significant shadow on the mammogram until it is quite large or advanced.  In contrast, breast thermography is much more likely to detect cancer early on—all without the pain, discomfort, and harmful radiation that comes with mammography.

With a normal thermogram, you can rule out breast cancer in the great majority of cases. The sensitivity of thermography appears to exceed that of mammography, meaning that a normal thermogram has a smaller chance of missing cancer when compared to a normal mammogram.  On the other hand, although an abnormal thermogram could indicate cancer, it lacks the specificity to show whether cancer actually exists.  (In statistics, “specificity” refers to the percentage of healthy women who are identified as not having breast cancer.)  This would require further testing, such as the use of ultrasound, MRI, and perhaps ultimately a tissue biopsy.


Can Thermascan be helpful if I have already been diagnosed with breast cancer?

Breast thermography can be very helpful to women with breast cancer, as abnormal thermograms have been linked with a poorer prognosis for these individuals. One clinical study found that breast cancer patients with abnormal thermograms had faster-growing tumors; in addition, the tumors were more likely to have metastasized and to recur sooner.   Another study found that breast cancer patients with abnormal or unfavorable thermograms had significantly shorter survival compared to those with relatively normal thermograms.   Therefore, once you have been diagnosed, an abnormal thermogram signifies the potential for more aggressive disease.

Overall, the research suggests that thermography could have considerable potential for monitoring cancer patients over time as well as their response to anticancer drug treatments.  If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and do show abnormal thermograms, you can then take steps to further evaluate your situation, attack the cancer, and more aggressively transform the conditions that may be promoting the growth and progression of the disease.


How do I prepare for a Thermascan?

You must not have had a mammogram within one week of the scan, as the radiation from that procedure leaves residual heat.  Other important measures are to avoid vigorous exercise the morning of the scan, and no hot shower, caffeine, or hot beverages within four hours of undergoing the scan.  


What happens during a typical Thermascan visit?

Clients will disrobe the area of the body to be scanned and sit in a room cooled to 68 degrees to lower skin temperature to allow areas of greater heat to be stand out more distinctly.  For breast or trunk views, one must raise your arms over your head during this cooling period.  For breast scans, a baseline scan is performed after the cooling period, then your hands will be placed in a pan of cold water, then another series of scans are taken.  Total time for a typical scan is 30 minutes.   


Will I see a physician during my scan?

Carolina Thermascan offers the option for clients to be seen by Dr. Pittman for a brief office visit following obtaining the scan during which time your medical history will be reviewed to focus on any issues for which the scan may provide useful information.  


How often should breast thermography be done?

An initial thermogram with a 3-6 month follow-up enables you to establish a good baseline.  Thereafter, annual Thermascan visits are generally recommended for women under age 50 starting at age 40 and every other year alternating with mammograms for women over age 50..


Is there anything special about the Carolina Thermascan’s camera compared to other cameras currently used for breast thermography?

Over the last 30 years, thermographic technology has advanced significantly with the development of more highly sensitivity cameras and powerful software.  Carolina Thermascan, LLC, utilizes the Indigo Merlin camera, which has far greater sensitivity than the more commonly used thermography camera, the Meditherm.  Whereas the Meditherm can only distinguish temperature differences of 0.1 to 0.25 degrees Celsius, the Indigo Merlin can distinguish 0.0018 degree Celsius, resulting in a 100-fold greater sensitivity.  This is like comparing an early color TV from the 1950s to a high definition plasma TV purchased in 2010.  This extra sensitivity enables Carolina Thermascan to pick up abnormalities that could be missed by facilities that use the Meditherm or other thermographic cameras.


Is this scan right for you?

Any woman can benefit from Thermascan.  This may be considered the best way to detect early on any abnormal cell growth in the breast, and to then monitor that process over time. Remember that information is power: The more you know about the condition of your body, the more intelligent and powerful your approach will be to preventing disease and promoting health and longevity.