A Recent Story Reminds Us That Thermography is Not a Substitute for Mammography

Thermography, also known as thermal imaging, uses a special camera to produce images, known as thermograms, showing patterns of heat and blood flow near or on the surface of the body. Though it has been around for several decades, thermography still does not have clearance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be marketed as a stand-alone diagnostic tool for detecting breast cancer. However, it is often inappropriately billed as such. Mammography, a low-dose X-ray image of the breast, is still the most effective method for breast cancer screening, detecting cancer in its earliest stages when it is more treatable and curable.

Earlier this month, a segment ran on "Good Morning America" profiling two California women who received thermography exams. One patient sought thermography because she wanted to "naturally" deal with a lump found in her breast in 2012. The thermography exam found Morganne Delain to be of "mild to moderate risk," so she was told by her thermography provider to perform exercises, cleanse and return for a follow-up in three months. During that time, Delain's symptoms became worse, so she opted for a conventional breast imaging exam, which resulted in a diagnosis of stage III breast cancer. Fortunately, Delain is now cancer-free due to conventional breast cancer treatment. For the second patient, this was unfortunately not the case. Her thermography screening found her "all clear," but after six months, Alma Arciniegas was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer, which then spread to her brain. She died in 2015.

Just this week, the FDA issued a warning letter to all health care providers, cancer-treatment advocacy groups, people recommended for breast cancer screening and all women. It warned that thermography should not be used in place of mammography to detect, diagnose or screen for breast cancer by stating the following:

"There is no valid scientific data to demonstrate that thermography devices, when used on their own or with another diagnostic test, are an effective screening tool for any medical condition including the early detection of breast cancer or other diseases and health conditions."

Thermography is also not endorsed by the American Cancer Society (ACS), the American College of Radiology (ACR) or the Society of Breast Imaging (SBI) as a method for detecting breast cancer, based on an article published in February 2018 in the American Journal of Roentgenology. (Edward Sickles, MD professor emeritus of Radiology, was a co-author.) At UCSF Radiology, we support mammography as a screening tool that saves lives and detects cancers early. It's important for women to know that thermography simply does not do the same.

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