Although it is not widely used, studies show digital infrared thermal imaging, or thermography, is more effective than mammography--the current gold standard for breast cancer screening. Thermography detects early changes in the breast that increase a woman's risk for developing breast cancer.

How Tumors Grow

To understand how thermography works, you need to understand the biology of tumors. Cells in our body divide to form new cells. Sometimes a cell changes, or mutates. In most cases, our body repairs the mutation before the cell divides. In some cases, however, the mutation is passed on through cell division, increasing the chance the mutated cells might organize and form a tumor.

Once a tumor forms, it needs nourishment--lots of it. Our blood delivers nutrients to our tissues and organs from digested food. Since a cancerous tumor needs extra nutrition, it changes this metabolic process by holding open existing blood vessels, opening dormant vessels and creating new ones to ensure it receives sufficient sustenance. This increased blood flow and metabolism changes the surface temperature of the breast.

Unlike mammograms that use x-rays, or ultrasound that uses sound waves, to detect existing tumors, thermography measures and maps heat on the surface of the breast using a heat sensitive camera, which works much like a night vision camera. It records thermal changes in the breast tissue.

Breast Thermography

Breast cancer is common in part because the cells in the breast divide frequently, creating opportunities for a tumor to form. Breast thermography takes advantage of the changes associated with early tumor growth, such as elevated temperature, to find signs that suggest a precancerous state, or to indicate the possible presence of a tumor still too tiny to detect through standard screening techniques. Thermography measures changes in the breast that may indicate cancer; it does not pinpoint tumors.

During thermography, a radiologist takes pictures of your breast with an infrared-sensitive camera. The procedure does not require breast compressing like mammograms or digital imaging.

Does it Work?

A substantial body of scientific research shows thermography is highly effective. An abnormal infrared image means a woman has a significantly greater of developing breast cancer than a woman with a close family history. Advocates of thermography say it is the single most important marker of high risk and can detect the first signs of breast cancer up to 10 years before any other detection method. Serial infrared imaging can also track breast changes over time.