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No-touch breast scans reported ineffective for cancer detection

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
infrared thermography, mammogram, breast cancer detection, accuracy

If it sounds too good to be true it may be too good to be true. Infrared thermography has been touted as a breast cancer detection method that avoids radiation or uncomfortable breast compression; however, a new study presented at the American Society of Breast Surgeons' annual meeting, which was held from May 1 through May 5 in Phoenix, Arizona questions its reliability.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Pennsylvania, found that, among women who had biopsies following suspicious-looking radiologic exams, the procedure missed too many cancers.

At a press conference, lead author Dr. Andrea Barrio noted that the procedure did not replace mammography as “the gold standard for detection." The researchers evaluated 178 women who had abnormalities detected on mammogram. Prior to undergoing a breast biopsy, the patients underwent an infrared thermography. The initial thermographic analyses were done at high-specificity settings. The subsequent biopsies discovered 52 positive cancer cases; however, among 50 patients, thermography determined that only 26 of them were positive; thus, the sensitivity of the procedure was only 50%. There were 132 negative biopsies; however, thermography determined that only 88 were positive; thus, the specificity was 67%. Further evaluation of thermography was done by scanning the normal breast on the opposite side; 42 (25%) tested positive.

The patients were then reevaluated by using a high-sensitivity mode, which reduced the number of false negatives. Upon completion, 156 patients had readable scans. Among 46 patients, 46 positive biopsies were found; 40 of these patients had an abnormality discovered by thermography; thus, under these circumstances, thermography had a sensitivity of 87%. This segment of the study contained 116 negative biopsies from 112 patients; however, thermography determined only 55 to be negative; thus, the specificity was 48%.

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The authors concluded that, based on their results, infrared screening is not a successful adjunct to mammography; furthermore, it cannot replace any of the screening tools in standard practice.

Infrared thermography is based on the premise that metabolic activity and vascular circulation in both pre-cancerous tissue and the area surrounding a developing breast cancer may be higher than normal breast tissue. Rapidly growing cancerous tissue requires nutrients from the blood stream; thus, they tend to increase circulation to their cells by dilating existing blood vessels, opening dormant vessels, and creating new ones.

Take home message:
An Internet search revealed a number of Web sites touting infrared thermography as a both safer and more effective procedure for the detection of breast cancer. Several were offering “Mother’s Day Specials.” In view of this study, women would be prudent to discuss breast diagnostic procedures with a healthcare professional with good credentials.

Reference: American Society of Breast Surgeons' annual meeting

See also:
Study supports cosmetic surgery for women with breast cancer
Overdiagnosis of breast cancer not uncommon report new studies
Non-drug treatment reported to improve quality of life in younger breast cancer patients