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.