Improving Our Chances to Catch Breast Cancer Early and Survive
We all know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month; we’ve been hearing that for years. We are more than aware of breast cancer. We all know someone or know of someone who has had it or is currently fighting it. 1 in 8 women in the US will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. We know that early detection can increase our survival rate to 95%. [i] We know that breast cancers are more aggressive in younger women, and statistics indicate that approximately 15% of all breast cancers occur in women under 45. [ii] We know all these things. Self-exams, yearly checkups, and mammograms are our only weapons. The medical community tells us that these are our only options. That message hasn’t changed in decades despite every October all of us buying special pink items to raise awareness and research money while listening to news stories that tell us to get our mammograms. I felt that there had to be something else out there, something I didn’t hear about, and I was right. It’s called THERMOGRAPHY.
But first, a little background. I have fibrocystic breasts, or as my OBGYN used to say, “lumpy bumpy but benign” breasts. I got my first mammogram when I was 25 for just that reason. My OBGYN wanted to have a baseline before I had children so he could compare if any changes were to occur with my pregnancies. That was the first time I was told there was something “suspicious,” and I had to go get further testing. Even though my brain told me it was probably nothing but the “lumpy bumpiness” of me, I was still scared out of my mind until I got the all-clear. This false positive has happened several other times, and the fear is always the same. While researching this post, I discovered that mammograms are less accurate for women with dense breast tissue, and mammograms also cannot detect other breast diseases. A Swedish study revealed that mammogram false positives for women under 50 were a whopping 86%! Besides the fear that these women endure, including my experience, they also have to deal with overtreatments such as biopsies, further testing such as ultrasounds, and possible surgery.
20% of cancers are not detected by mammography for various reasons. Women on hormone replacement have denser breast tissue, making it harder to get a clean mammography reading. Women who are nursing have problems getting a clean reading due to milk storage. Women with fibrocystic, large, dense, or augmented breasts also have difficulty getting a clean reading. [iii] All the reasons mentioned above are not an obstacle for thermography. Thermography is a test that uses an infrared camera to detect heat patterns and blood flow in body tissues. There is no cancer-causing radiation involved. As cancer cells grow and multiply, they need more blood flow to grow, which raises the temperature around the growing tumor, making it easy to pick out in the image. Thermography detects changes in blood vessel activity that are indicative of a tumor’s beginning or growth. Thermography may find thermal signs suggesting a pre-cancerous state or evidence of an early tumor that is not yet large enough to be detected by self-exam, physician’s exam, mammography, or other types of structural imaging such as an ultrasound. [iv] Thermography provides accurate results for women under 50, where mammogram does not. Another Swedish study published in The Lancet “revealed that the benefits of mammography were limited to women between the ages of 55 and 69” and that “no statistically significant benefits were seen outside the age range of 55 to 69 years.” [v]
So why haven’t we heard about this other tool we could use to protect ourselves? I haven’t a clue. I am sure there are many conspiracy theories about “big mammogram” or something, but that is not something we will get into here. I wonder why most insurances will not cover it when it has a decades-long track record of being very beneficial in the early detection of breast cancer. I know that I can use my Health Savings Plan to cover the cost, which I have done for a few years now. Maybe yours will cover it as well. It is definitely worth checking out.
“An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure.” We have all heard that one before. When applied to breast cancer, though, it really makes an impact. When early detection is crucial to survival, it only makes sense to add this tool to your arsenal. Many diseases like diabetes have tools for risk assessment, such as knowing your fasting blood glucose or A1c number. These risk markers give you time to change your lifestyle to prevent the disease or at least have a measure of control over it. Thermography is one of those tools that bring a measure of risk assessment to breast health. [vi]
Not all tumors are visible on a mammogram, just as not all tumors are associated with a high level of blood vessel activity. By combining the two, especially if you are in a high-risk group, along with self-exams and regular visits to your gynecologist, we take better control of our breast health. We give ourselves a tremendous advantage for early detection, which is the key to beating this devastating illness.