If the Internet buzz about a pain-free, radiation-free alternative to mammography sounds too good to be true, there's a reason for that.
Breast thermography — recently touted as the "best breast test" by Oprah favorite Dr. Christiane Northrup, writing in the Huffington Post — has never been proven effective for routine breast cancer screening in a large-scale, randomized study, experts say. The FDA has never approved it for that purpose and in 2009 issued a warning letter accusing an Idaho health care provider of marketing thermography as a mammogram replacement.
Last year the Oregon attorney general shut down a troubled health clinic, accusing it, in part, of misrepresenting thermography as superior to mammography for breast cancer screening.
"The bottom line is that the proven technology for screening for breast cancer is X-ray or digital mammography.
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And that is the only proven technology," says Robert Smith, director of cancer screening for the American Cancer Society.
Northrup, who wrote in the Huffington Post article that "many (doctors) believe that a mammogram is the best test for detecting breast cancer early . . . but it's not," responded to a request for comment with an e-mail saying, in part, "Thermography has been shown to pick up abnormalities in the heat in the breast many years before a lesion would likely show up in a mammogram. The ideal is to use both technologies when appropriate."
Breast thermography uses infrared cameras to detect subtle heat elevation associated with tumors, which tend to have more blood flow and higher metabolic rates than normal tissue.
Thermography was considered a promising screening technology in the 1960s, but it fell out of favor with doctors in the 1970s when a large study found that it detected only 39 percent of breast cancers, while mammography picked up 78 percent.