Thermography — A Mammogram Alternative

By Becca Harber

bigstock_Breast_cancer_-_Woman_holding__13032482In 2009, my friend Susie Kossack told me that a non-invasive exam existed called "thermography," used to check breasts for signs of cancer. At 59, I was instantly curious, as I'd consciously chosen not to have mammograms. I was concerned that the cumulative radiation from repeated exams would increase my cancer risk, and I'd rarely chosen to receive other X-rays over the years. The idea of my breasts being painfully smashed down during the procedure was also repellent to me. I learned online about Dr. 
Pamela Howard, a certified thermal imaging technician who comes to this region to offer thermography.

I was told to schedule two exams several months apart to establish my baseline of "normality," assuming no unusual spots showed up initially. After that, annual thermal exams (TEs) are recommended to check for changes. During the first exam, the patient is photographed from six angles. Her health history and photos go to a medical team trained in interpreting TEs. They send evaluative comments to the patient and her doctor or health practitioner. Dr. Howard also reviews the reports herself if requested. If the results indicate possible conditions, she'll also make referrals, including to holistic practitioners. The total cost for breast thermography is $175. Full body TEs cost more.

I wondered why I hadn't heard of thermography before — why always mammograms? I read that thermography was discredited after some women tested negative with mammograms, but positive with TEs. Too many "false positives" led to lobbying that ended thermographic coverage by insurance and Medicare. (Mammography equipment costs many times that of thermography. Could this have been a factor in the decision making?) However, in "Breast Thermography: A Responsible Second Look," Dr. William Cockburn, D.C., writes that "numerous follow-up studies determined that those women... had developed breast cancer in the exact location" indicated by the TE five to ten years later. The earlier stages of their cancer, undetectable by mammograms, had been revealed by thermography.

Wholistic doctor and author Christiane Northrup writes, "The M.D. who interprets thermograms expects to see symmetrical heat patterns. Even subtle differences from one side to the other are easily identified, which can indicate cancerous or precancerous tissue or other anomalies. Some are explainable and don't require additional testing. Studies have shown TEs to be even more reliable indicators than family history. ... If you get regular thermograms and you develop breast cancer it'll likely be found early... so you can make lifestyle and other changes to improve your health... Also, thermography doesn't pick up questionable masses in women with fibrocystic disease nearly as often as mammography does."

According to herbalist and author Susun Weed, "Scientists agree that there's no safe dose of radiation... Breast cells are second only to fetal tissues in sensitivity to radiation. The younger these cells, the more easily DNA is damaged... And one percent of American women carry a hard-to-detect oncogene that's triggered by radiation; one mammogram increases their risk of breast cancer four to six times." Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., also mentions studies showing notable increases in cancer risks from mammograms in women with that oncogene. Lowest radiation doses per mammogram are 0.25 to 1 rad, equaling 1 to 4 rads per mammogram (two views each of two breasts).

Weed goes on to say that, according to Sister Rosalie Bertell, a respected worldwide authority on radiation dangers, "one rad increases breast cancer risk one percent... If a woman has yearly mammograms for twenty years, she'll receive a minimum of 20 rads of radiation. For comparison, women who survived the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima or Nagasaki absorbed 35 rads. Though one large dose of radiation can be more harmful than many small doses, it's important to remember that damage from radiation is cumulative." The benefit of TEs is that you receive no radiation — unless and until you get a mammogram, because you had a positive thermography test indicating the need for one.

Susie told me she'd had one mammogram in her early fifties. "I knew compressing such a tender part of me so extremely was not how I'm meant to be treated," she said. "The experience was violent." Years later, concerned about a possible nodule in her breast, she went to get her breasts checked out with thermography, having read that it was more reliable. "I felt that this approach showed care and respect for my body, and it wasn't violent," she said.

My friend Crow Marley has only had one mammogram, at age 40. For her, this caused pain and soreness that hasn't ended twelve years later. When, during the procedure, she complained of sharp pain from the compression, she was told that this was normal. "If TEs cost less, I'd use them," she said.

What is Thermography?

An infrared digital thermal imaging camera registers heat on the surface of the recipient's body. An image immediately appears that you can see on a screen. It's a heat map, with rainbow colors representing different temperatures, each color different by half a degree, from the coolest purple to hottest white. Cancerous (and inflamed) areas are hotter than healthy ones, since tumors and increased blood vessels feeding cancer growth are warmer than normal tissue. Some conditions show up cooler than usual. Thermal exams (TEs) involve no radiation, compression or toxic exposure to the patient.

Because thermography looks at physiology, it picks up changes indicating possible cancer (and many other conditions) years before mammograms or other tests can. In "Breast Thermography: A Responsible Second Look," Dr. William Cockburn, D.C., explains that this is because mammograms look at anatomy, and it takes years longer for a cancerous tumor "to be large and dense enough to block an X-ray beam... and produce an image" detectable by a trained radiologist. Unlike mammograms, thermography "can establish a baseline in women as young as 18... As soon as there's a suspicious (positive) TE, appropriate follow-up diagnostic testing can be obtained." This can include "mammography, other imaging tests... lab procedures, nutritional/lifestyle evaluation" and more.

Low-income and uninsured people can apply for funds for thermography from the United Breast Cancer Foundation ( For more information on thermography in the Ithaca area, contact Dr. Pamela Howard at 1.866.522.3484, or visit

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