Thermography as a Breast Cancer Detection Tool: Claims Misleading

A recent feature on NBC News highlighted an increasing trend amongst San Francisco clinics. More and more are offering and advertising breast thermography and billing it as “more accurate” than mammography for detecting breast cancers.  The issue is, however, that the FDA says it has “no evidence” to support these claims. The FDA announced that thermography is not an alternative to mammography.

What exactly is thermal imaging? A thermogram is a rainbow picture of the body where different colors represent different temperature zones.  Supporters of the imaging technique argue that the test can detect changes that could possibly progress into late-stage disease. Clinicians are advertising it as an accurate tool to detect breast cancer earlier than a mammogram would.

The NBC investigation found that clinicians in the San Francisco area have been inaccurately informing women that thermography detects cancers “equally as well or better than a mammogram” and that the technique is “very accurate, and it also has the ability to detect the changes we’re looking for many years before that mass would be able to be detected on a mammogram.”

These claims are being unjustly exaggerated. At UCSF, we have not found any evidence that thermography helps to detect breast cancer, especially as a standalone test for breast cancer. Thermography is not the standard of care, and we advise women avoid it completely. The process fails to provide any supplemental benefit to standard breast imaging and should not be considered an adequate screening tool.

At UCSF, 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.

CORRECTION: It might have sounded like I recommend ultrasound as the best screening technique for breast cancer but this is incorrect. I recommend mammography as the best screening tool.  However, for symptomatic women (i.e.: a woman with a breast lump) ultrasound is a valuable addition to mammography.

See here for more on this report.

For more information about mammography at UCSF, please click here.