Thermography to Assess Breast Inflammation in breast cancer survivors
Breast thermography provides one of the best visual clues of the presence of inflammation in breast tissue. Since inflammation often accompanies precancerous changes to the breast and since it always produces heat, measuring the temperature of the breasts can provide us with vital information.
Temperature measurement as a means of assessing health has its roots in ancient Greece, when Hippocrates covered his patients’ bodies with a thin slurry of mud and, as it dried, observed temperature differences around diseased organs. With the advent of military infrared heat detection technology, specialized cameras were developed that could produce a detailed picture showing how the heat is distributed over the body. This picture could then be analyzed with computer software to
determine regions of abnormal heat, suggesting injury or disease.
When it comes to breast health, here’s how it works, according to Robert Kane (pers. comm.), a board-certified clinical thermologist who maintains a busy thermal-imaging interpretation practice in Redwood City, California: “Heat is produced in the breast by normal tissue metabolism and is carried to the surface by the blood supply. Our bodies naturally release heat to the environment in the form of infrared energy to maintain a normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This energy can be captured and visualized by a special infrared detector inside the thermography camera.”
Normal breast tissue produces a characteristic temperature pattern when visualized with thermography. On the other hand, fast-growing, abnormal breast tissue (cancerous or precancerous) will produce heat through its faster metabolism.
This heat travels through the circulatory system to the surface of the skin, where it can be detected using a thermographic camera (Yahara et al. 2003). What’s more, as mentioned earlier, cancerous tissue can create its own blood supply via the process of angiogenesis, or new blood vessel formation (Anbar 1994). Both of these occurrences can translate into temperature changes at the surface of the breast and provide a means of detection with the thermographic camera.
Thermography findings are less dependent on the size of the abnormal tissue and are more directly related to the degree of inflammation, growth rate of the tissue, and metabolic activity (Gautherie et al. 1982). The more inflamed, aggressive, and metabolically active the tissue, the more likely that a trained interpreter will see it on a thermogram. Since highly inflamed, precancerous growth represents the highest likelihood that cancer will develop, we consider thermography to be an excellent addition to standard breast imaging (mammography, MRI, or ultrasound) to help identify smaller lesions that are growing quickly and may appear between annual examinations.
Perhaps even more important, thermography provides invaluable feedback if you’re attempting to lower your risk of recurrence through lifestyle and nutrition, allowing you to see if your actions are effective. In short, just as thermography can be used to identify physiological signs that precede cancer and signal future risk, you can also use it to track the success of your anti-inflammatory strategies, adding a great deal to your peace of mind between conventional screenings.