Thermography: Not a reliable breast cancer screening method

Thermography: Not a reliable breast cancer screening method

In the fight against breast cancer, research into improved alternatives for breast screening are ongoing and vital, but they must meet strict criteria of accuracy and reliablity.

You may have heard of a method of evaluating the breast known as “thermography” (or infrared imaging). Thermography does not meet the criteria of accuracy and sensitvity in diagnosing breast cancer. Thermography is the use of a special heat-sensing camera that measures body temperature on the surface of the breast tissue. While it offered brief hope of finding breast cancers easily, it fails to offer the most important aspect of breast cancer screening: accuracy.

According to studies cited by the American Cancer Society, thermography is an experimental breast imaging method that misses three-quarters of all breast cancers. The Food and Drug Administration has even issued a warning to women against using thermography in place of mammography as a breast cancer screening method.

The theory behind thermography is simple enough, evaluating the superficial tissues for changes in body temperature. The imaging is based on the theory that cancer cells are “hungry” for nutrition, demanding more blood than regular, healthy tissue and causing a rise in body temperature at the location of a tumor. Because thermography only measures surface temperatures, cancers not superficially located will not be detected. Additionally, small cancers, those we can detect with mammography screening, may not result in a siginificant detectable rise in temperature. Still, misinformation abounds in spite of the FDA’s ruling and the scientific rigor of those who have carefully and methodically tested the modality and found it lacking.

In short, we join other groups that do not advocate the use of thermography for breast cancer screening. The Society of Breast Imaging has a well-researched stance on the issue, which can be read here. Research to find more accurate, safe, reliable methods of screening are vital – but for now, mammography remains the key tool in our screening arsenal.



Image credit: Fullbody 03 by Pyh2 via Wikimedia Commons; Copyright Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) 

Originally published 8/28/13 on