Last Spring I developed an odd pain in my left breast that made it uncomfortable to even wear a bra. At first I thought I strained a pectoral muscle, but a month later I still had no relief. I’m a healthy twenty-nine year old woman with no family history of breast cancer. The odds were pretty low but the fear kept creeping in. As a result I had two doctors – my American homeopathic doctor and my Irish/Moldovan doctor/godmother – give me a physical breast exam. They both agreed: everything seemed normal.
Why I was In So Much Pain
My husband and I theorized that it was maybe caused by my desk job, so I hoped that once we took off for our seven week vacation it would all go away. It didn’t. The dull, sometimes stabbing pain in my left breast was there all the time no matter how relaxed I was – snuggling close to my mama, eating tapas in Barcelona, or hiking on glaciers in Iceland. I knew I had to develop a game plan when we got home. The pain I could handle alright. What I couldn’t handle was the mystery, which began eating away at me, keeping me awake at night wondering if this was cancer. The statistic that one in eight women in the US will develop breast cancer in their lifetime was not comforting.
Why I Said “No” to a Mammogram
Before you roll your eyes and decide I’m just another paranoid crunchy lady who washes her hair with baking soda and doesn’t use a microwave, let me explain. I think mammograms are incredibly helpful in many situations and they have saved thousands of women’s lives. However, they are extremely invasive, painful, and have health risks of their own.
According to the statistics on the American Cancer Society people in the US are normally exposed to an average of about 3 mSv of radiation each year just from their natural surroundings (this is called background radiation). The dose of radiation that a woman gets during a screening mammogram of both breasts is about the same amount of radiation that she would average from her natural surroundings over about 7 weeks. Source.
7 weeks worth of radiation in one day seemed like an unnecessary compromise since two of my physical exams didn’t find anything alarming. Instead, I wanted to try something more advanced than a physical but less invasive than a mammogram. I found the solution to my dilemma with infrared breast thermography also know as digital infrared thermography or thermo-mammography.
Why I Said “Yes” to a Breast Thermography
Breast Thermography uses an infrared camera to measure metabolic or physiological changes which are seen as heat patterns on the entire chest and surrounding areas. Inflammation or infections produce heat patterns whereas fibrocysts or lipomas which are fatty tumors scan “cold” since there is not a lot of metabolic activity going on. Cancer at various stages releases nitric oxide which is a vaso-dilator, blood vessels in the area begin to open up and provide increased oxygen and nutrition to the developing tumor. Angiogenesis – or new blood vessel formation – is necessary to sustain the growth of a tumor. Increased heat may be the first signal that such a cancer is developing. With a cutting edge infrared camera, digital infrared imaging creates images that can be switched from various color palettes to a gray scale which shows these blood vessels leading to the mass. The procedure is non-invasive, painless, and there is no harmful radiation involved. Some research suggests that digital infrared imaging can identify areas of concern 3-8 years prior to mammogram detection.
Here are a few more facts about breast thermography:
- IR has a very high sensitivity (on average 90%). At the clinic I visited the camera had a 97% sensitivity and had FDA clearance since 1983. MRIs are 98% sensitive. Infrared thermography shows markers associated with breast disease and is the best “Risk detection tool” available to modern medicine.
- Does not replace other diagnostic methods but rather adds to other structural testing to improve their diagnostic value and complement the comprehensive program of breast evaluation.
- Effective in instances where mammography is compromised, such as: in women before menopause; women who have used hormone replacement therapy (HRT); have glandular or dense breasts; have fibrocystic disease; had prior biopsies; have implants or reconstructive/reduction surgery with a lot of scar tissue; are pregnant; are nursing or have small or large breasts; or have had toxic exposures of herbicides/ pesticides/ xenoestrogens/ estrogen disruptors.
I decided to get a thermography and see if there were any areas of alarm. If the test showed any signs of inflammation or unusual heat patterns around my breasts I would follow it up with an ultrasound and/or mammogram. Plus I was curious to find out more about this seemingly obscure procedure which has actually been available for 30 years. Thermography has improved tremendously over the last 15 years due to increased military money for surface to air missile research and their use in the Iraq War. Lucky for me, Infrared Breast Health is located in Eugene, Oregon – my hometown.
Ingrid Edstrom, FNP, M.Ed. had me undress from the waist up with a light bib covering my chest. While we waited for my body to equilibrate to the temperature of the climate controlled room we chatted about my medical history, the strange pain in my left breast, and did another physical exam. The atmosphere was very pleasant and I felt quite at ease. Before we began the exam Ingrid showed me a few infrared photo samples and explained to me what the infrared color and gray scale heat patterns were showing so I could follow better what was going on during my own exam.
Here is an IR image of a patient who Ingrid has been following for 10 years with infrared thermography, and ended up having two biopsy proven breast cancers in her left breast. You can see their heat signatures as compared with the breast on her right. The patient had mammograms and ultrasounds annually for 4 years prior to her surgery and both the cancers were “undetected” by structural studies. The photo is shared with consent of the patient and with compliments from the Infrared Breast Health in Eugene, Oregon.
Ingrid also noticed that on my back there were three oversized moles which I have had since birth, and she politely asked if she could include those in our exam. I was grateful to comply as I have never had my moles checked. She pointed out that thermography is also helpful in identifying melanomas since they put up heat signatures. In fact, Ingrid not only took infrared images of my back and my chest but also my torso, thyroid, and face. Sub-clinical hypothyroidism, thyroid tumors, failed root canals, and sinus infections can also be identified with thermography.
First of all these were some of the most beautiful and fascinating photos I have ever seen of my body. I even received photo paper copies. Second of all there were no concerning heat patterns on my breast or on the moles. However, my lower back lit up like a Christmas tree. Blue is cold; red is hot. I seem to be carrying a lot of stress, spasm, and inflammation, probably due to my desk job, which we suspect is affecting my chest area also. One side of my mouth showed some heat patterns too; recently, I have been having some sensitivity in one of my molars.
But Ingrid had even more news for me. The camera she uses is accurate within 0.065 degrees Celsius. It is able to visually detect estrogenic / hormonal effects in the breast that may be related to the risks of being toxically exposed to estrogen mimickers, as found in herbicides/pesticides/plastics/bovine growth hormones and other estrogen-like chemicals. Although I have a pretty clean, organic, wholesome diet, she detected an increased level of estrogenic activity in my breasts. Unaddressed, this can contribute to the development of breast cancer for up to a couple more decades from now for me. We sat down together and discussed what my options were for detoxing better. I have known that I am struggling with a hormonal imbalance for quite some time and have taken many balancing supplements, but Ingrid gave me some great suggestions from her Proactive Breast Wellness program as well as validating some of my dietary choices.
Peace of Mind
After my exam, I came home and texted my husband the good news: “I’m OK!”
After I sent Clayton the text I began shaking all over. Even my teeth were chattering. With trembling hands, I prepared myself a hot bath and laid there taking deep breaths. Whoa! Talk about release! My body took over and asked for a much needed break from the stress.
Later I explained to Clayton in more technical terms that there weren’t a lot of thermal or metabolic changes going on in my breasts and that although only a biopsy could diagnose cancer, my breasts did not show any alarming features.
The pain in my breast is still there but it is nice to have the worst case scenario ruled out. Ingrid pointed out that coffee and chocolate makes fibrocystic breasts worse and that several supplements in the PBW protocol should help tender breasts. At her recommendation, I am seeing a massage therapist who will be specifically working on lymphatic drainage in my breast area then I will be able to do lymph drainage at home 2-3 times a week myself.
Why am I Telling You This?
Breast cancer is a silent killer claiming many women’s lives. I did not get paid to write this post. I wanted to spread the word and share with you my personal experience with breast thermography. Ask your insurance company if thermography is covered under your insurance or not. I do not have insurance and paid out of pocket for the visit. It cost me under $300 for the exam and a two hour visit. Well worth my peace of mind and the information I received. I plan to make this into an annual visit, as I am turning thirty this year and it is time to be more vigilant. I trust that if Ingrid sees something alarming she will notify my primary care physician and I will be guided towards the correct plan of action, whether that is a mammogram, ultrasound, or an MRI. I also look forward to see whether following the Proactive Breast Wellness protocol and the changes I am making in my diet, lifestyle, and supplement intake will decrease the estrogenic/hormonal activity in my breast.