Thermography vs Mammography: What do We Recommend?

Thermography and mammography are both screening tools most commonly used to help detect signs of breast cancer in women. At Zion Health, we share in preventive mammograms as a part of our Preventive Sharing program. If you are wondering why Zion Health has made the decision to share in mammograms and not thermograms, the answer is in the medical science.

Why do we need preventive screenings?

The reason to perform a screen of any kind is to either identify a disease early or to rule it out. In the case of breast cancer, early detection leads to far better treatment outcomes. Screening is an important part of every woman’s health.

What is the difference between thermography and mammography?

Thermography uses an infrared camera to produce images using temperature differences in the breast tissue (think of the word “thermal”). Mammography uses x-rays to take pictures of the breast. Both procedures have different abilities to detect the presence or absence of breast tumors.

Thermography is very good at finding larger tumors. However, by the time tumors become large enough for detection by thermography, many have progressed to stage 2 or 3 cancers. Making the diagnosis at the stage where thermography can effectively detect tumors defeats the purpose of screening.

Mammography detects suspicious breast tissue changes when they are very small, which is the best time to find them. Despite this, many of these changes, when biopsied, turn out to be non-cancerous. The important fact to remember is that when these small changes are cancerous, treatment can begin much sooner, which ultimately results in much greater success and better outcomes.

What do medical experts recommend?

The American Cancer Society, Society of Breast Imaging, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Physicians, American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend mammography for screening. The US Preventive Services Task Force states that even for dense breast tissue, mammography is strongly recommended. The FDA strictly warns against the use of thermography for breast cancer detection.

Can’t x-rays be dangerous?

Mammography uses x-rays to take photos of breast tissue. Thermography has been marketed as a radiation-free alternative to mammograms. The radiation dose from modern mammography equipment is best described on the American Cancer Society website:

“Mammograms expose the breasts to small amounts of radiation. But the benefits of mammography outweigh any possible harm from the radiation exposure. Modern machines use low radiation doses to get breast x-rays that are high in image quality. On average the total dose for a typical mammogram with 2 views of each breast is about 0.4 millisieverts, or mSv. (A mSv is a measure of radiation dose.) The radiation dose from 3D mammograms can range from slightly lower to slightly higher than that from standard mammograms.  To put these doses into perspective, people in the US are normally exposed to an average of about 3 mSv of radiation each year just from their natural surroundings. (This is called background radiation.) The dose of radiation used for a screening mammogram of both breasts is about the same amount of radiation a woman would get from her natural surroundings over about 7 weeks.”

Women who are pregnant may be advised against a mammogram, but otherwise, this method is still highly safe and effective.

Zion Health shares based on medical science

If we were to share in thermography as a screening tool for breast cancer, we would ultimately be paying more for breast cancer treatment, with poorer outcomes. Solely relying on thermography contributes to an increased risk of undiagnosed breast cancers in our members when a screening mammogram could detect these cancers earlier. We would be causing additional unnecessary cost and emotional distress for our members. If thermography becomes as good as, or superior to, mammography for the detection of early breast cancers, Zion Health will strongly consider including this method in our offered Preventive Services.

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