Definition & Overview

Thermography is a general term that refers to the use of infrared energy to take images (thermograms) that are used in the medical field in detecting tumours. Today, thermography is used more specifically in detecting early stages of breast cancer. In fact, breast thermography is now almost a standard procedure for assessing risk and early detection of breast cancer, recommended for women who pose a high risk of developing the condition.

Thermography is based on the concept that vascular circulation and metabolic activity are both high in areas surrounding a developing breast tumour and in pre-cancerous tissue. This is furthermore based on the principle that cancerous tumours tend to increase circulation in their cells by opening blood vessels (even dormant ones) and creating new ones, due to their increasing need for nutrients. This increased metabolic processes results in higher surface temperature in the area, which is detected by ultra-sensitive thermography cameras.

Currently, the standard methods used to detect breast cancer include a physical examination and mammography. However, these methods are usually not able to detect the onset of cancer until in its mid to latter stages. Thermography is a modern method and may be crucial in early breast cancer detection.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

Breast thermography is usually recommended for those who have a higher risk of developing cancer in the breast. There are no stringent rules, however, in determining risk factors. Although the following can increase the chances of breast cancer, it does not always mean that their presence automatically leads to the development of the condition later on in life.

  • Simply being a woman - Women are 100% more likely to develop breast cancer than men
  • Heredity - About 10% of breast cancer cases appear to be hereditary. Studies have found that cancers are caused by genetic mutations passed on from a parent. Women who have close blood relatives who developed cancer may have a higher risk for the disease.
  • Personal history of breast cancer
  • Race and ethnicity - Statistics show that Caucasians and Westerners seem slightly more likely to develop cancer than African-American, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic women.
  • Dense breast tissue - Studies show that women with more dense breasts (determined by a variety of factors) have more glandular and fibrous tissue, and are more likely to have a higher risk of developing the condition.
  • Age - Women over 40 years old have higher chances of developing breast cancer
  • Presence of benign breast conditions
  • Late menopause - Women who start menopause after age 55
  • Lifestyle-related factors - Obesity, lack of physical exercise, drinking alcohol, smoking, and the use of birth control contraceptives may increase one's risk of developing the disease


Those who show these risk factors, and those who experience abnormal changes in the breast, are highly recommended to undergo breast thermography. The procedure can further evaluate the patient's likelihood of developing cancer or detect its onset even without the symptoms. Based on the results of thermography, certain precautions or procedures may be recommended to treat early stages of breast cancer or prevent breast cancer altogether.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and it has been found that early detection significantly increases the patient's chances of survival.

How is the Procedure Performed?

Breast thermography is a simple, non-invasive procedure performed in about 30 minutes. Prior to the session, certain instructions are given by the doctor to ensure accurate reading of the thermograph. These may include restrictions on physical activity and avoiding tanning, sauna, smoking, and massage therapy, among others.

During the thermography session, patients are asked to wear an upper garment robe and allowed to relax for 15 minutes to stabilise body temperature. After proper acclimation, the patient is positioned in front of the imaging camera in a way that the breast surface, chest, and underarms are viewable to the thermography scanner. The imaging camera then takes thermal images of the breasts in less than 5 minutes.

The result of the thermography scan (thermogram) is forwarded to the thermologist for interpretation, which results are made available to the patient after a couple of weeks. Depending on the results of the screening test, routine follow-ups and additional testing may be recommended. Follow-up screenings are just as crucial as they allow the doctor to determine breast health.

Possible Risks and Complications

Thermography is a simple procedure that has no unwanted side effects. It makes use of infrared light, which is low energy and will not be felt at all. However, to achieve accurate results, it is very important to strictly follow the preparation instructions.

Moreover, to ensure the proper evaluation of the probability of cancer from occurring, follow-up thermography sessions will most likely be recommended especially for those with a higher risk of developing the disease.

References

  • Poryev, V. A.; Poryev, G. V. (2004). "Experimental determination of the temperature range of a television pyrometer". Journal of Optical Technology 71 (1): 70–71.

  • Maldague X. P. V., Jones T. S., Kaplan H., Marinetti S. and Prystay M. (2001) "Chapter 2: Fundamentals of Infrared and Thermal Testing: Part 1. Principles of Infrared and Thermal Testing," in Nondestructive Handbook, Infrared and Thermal Testing, Volume 3, X. Maldague technical ed., P. O. Moore ed., 3rd edition, Columbus, Ohio, ASNT Press.

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