Health Notes: Breast thermography arrives in Vernon

A new tool for detecting lumps can help catch breast cancer at its earliest stage.

The statistics today are alarming: one in nine Canadian women will develop breast cancer.  Each woman must choose between lumpectomy, mastectomy, radiation or chemotherapy in deciding how best to respond to her situation. With no cure for breast cancer in sight, everyone agrees that early detection is crucial.

Presently, breast self-examination and regular mammograms are the prescribed tools for early detection. Self-examination is an easy, no-cost way to monitor breast health and detect changes in the early stages. Mammograms provide a look inside the breast tissue and can often detect and diagnose anatomical abnormalities — such as lumps — already existing in the breast.

But lumps and other breast abnormalities generally don’t appear overnight. Long before they are discovered with exams and imaging, their cellular contributors are hard at work. Cancer cells require a supply of blood in order to flourish and survive. Being aggressive, they create their own pathways to obtain this nourishment. Self-examination and mammograms cannot detect this invisible, early-cellular process, which usually occurs in breast tissue from five to 10 years before even the slightest growth of a lump.

Usually abnormal cells are hotter because a malignant tissue mass is greedy. To feed their rapid growth they produce a chemical that makes new blood vessels grow. This is called angiogenesis (angio means blood vessel, genesis means creation). The increase of blood flow in the tissue appears as an increase in heat when imaged with thermography.

The science of breast thermography has opened the door to the earliest screening for abnormalities in breast tissue that Western medicine has ever known. Thermography uses infrared imaging to generate highly detailed digital pictures. The military began using infrared imaging in the 1950s. Valued for its ability to detect and pinpoint areas of heat and movement, this technology provided a way for the military to “see” what and where the eye or other surveillance techniques couldn’t — it is also known as “night vision.”

While the FDA has approved breast thermography since 1982, few women are familiar with the technique. There are currently more than 800 peer-reviewed studies on thermography in the medical databases currently, and statistics have shown that an abnormal thermogram is 10 times more significant as a future risk indicator for breast cancer than a first- degree relative having a history of the disease.

A digital infrared imaging scan shows the heat difference between normal breast tissue and problem areas. Breast thermography detects functional changes in breast tissue before tumours form and when the tumours are too small to be detected with X-rays.  This is done without radiation, compression, contact or needles.  Thermography can be used for women of all ages and with all types of breast tissue: young, dense, pregnant, breastfeeding, pre- and post-menopausal, fibrocystic, with breast implants, and when on hormone therapy. In our office the breast exam is held in a private room, with a female technician, and requires only 45 minutes. Exams are painless and the images are electronically sent, interpreted and reviewed within days.

We must use every means possible to detect cancer where there is the greatest chance for survival. Proper use of breast self-exams, physician exams, thermography, and mammography together provide the earliest detection system available to date.

We encourage women to discuss their breast health with their doctors and to find ways to help to prevent breast cancer.

Dr. Shelby Entner is a naturopathic physician practising, with Dr. Chris Spooner, at Okanagan Natural Medicine in Vernon.