Just the mention of breast exams puts most women into the same sort of wincing panic that most men undoubtedly endure with thoughts of a potential prostate exam.
That means visions of pinching, cold surfaces and drafts, uncomfortable invasions of privacy and fear of the fear of the unknown.
And with the world-wide pink ribbons proliferating our every thought during October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we have it very much on our minds.
The National Health Information Center lists the following months and their associated cancer awareness:
- January – Cervical
- March – Colo-Rectal
- May – Skin
- July – Sarcoma
- September – Childhood, Leukemia and Lymphoma. Ovarian, Prostate
- November – Lung, Stomach, Pancreatic
For October, and other months in general health diagnoses, there is an alternative to the traditional mammogram — and a large part of that scientific advance is right here in Birmingham, at Therma-Scan. It’s home to the increasingly sought-after method of digital infrared imaging, or DII.
The method is credited for finding cancer up to 10 years before other methods detect it, says South Florida’s Donna Tomey, cancer survivor and thermography advocate, who runs Thermography First, LLC.
Even with raised public consciousness in recent years, the overall prognosis isn’t sunny with cancer detection. For instance, pancreatic cancers are still frequently not recognized until in the later stages, and progress in fighting cancer has suffered at times, due at least in part to insurance inequities, politics or government intervention. Confusion and fear have also accompanied every announcement of the U.S. Preventive Task Force, who made headlines with its “objective review,” primarily objecting to annual mammograms in women under 50 and over 74.
Women don’t know the answers anymore, and confusion aside, even with increased awareness, breast cancers have not been eradicated.
Environmental pollutants, as well as genetics, are blamed for the proliferation of urban breast cancers. Awareness advocates Army of Women says black women have higher rates of pre-menopausal breast cancer, and are more likely to die from it, than women of European ancestry.
The American Cancer Society says the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes inherited from either parent. Normally, such genes help prevent cancer by producing proteins that keep abnormal cells at bay, but mutations present an 80 percent cancer risk, especially for both breasts in younger women — and that can include ovarian and other cancers.
The ACS says it’s predominantly found in Jewish women of Ashkenazi (Eastern Europe) origin, but can occur in any racial or ethnic group. Also, as women age, risk increases; since two to three invasive varieties is found in females 55 or older, compared to one in eight under age 45.
Detection is still key—and preventing additional risk in that process is especially key. The best part about thermography is the accuracy — and subsequent peace of mind.
Traditional mammograms miss cancer 22 percent of the time, say experts, compared to the 97 percent sensitivity of thermograms at detecting cancer. In a 2001 article from experts in the International Journal of Health Services, the former is said to be a profit-driven device, riddled by error.
An Oxford Journal study weighed mammography radiologists for five years, finding only those who read 960 mammograms over a 2-year period to be considered eligible to interpret mammograms at an accredited mammography facility in the United States. Thus, many cancers are not initially caught, and in a 2005 study in the Journal of Medical Screening, only a second screening caught the disease.
Although the switch from traditional mammography film to digital does result in more medical follow-ups, up to 10 percent of those can erroneously still reveal perfectly healthy breasts, says a 2008 article in The New York Times.
Although in-office clinical exams given by physicians receive high marks, along with monthly patient self-exams, the machinery presents a problem with traditional tests. Researchers warn of the compressive force used in traditional tests that, in fact, is a contributing factor to subsequent development of breast cancer.
The British standard for that force compared it to placing 20 1-kilogram bags of sugar on each breast. University of Scotland scientists fear that such force is excessive enough to dislocate and spread any existing cancer. Experts argue that animals undergoing similar manipulation increase cancer sites by as much as 80 percent.
A study in Malmo, Sweden says that deaths from breast cancer in women under 55 was 29 percent higher in those screened through traditional mammography than in those unscreened at all. And ionizing radiation from all medical and dental X-rays lead to a 75 percent increase in breast cancers, according to the late renowned authority Dr. John W. Gofman.
“In addition, each time the breasts are exposed to an X-ray, the risk of breast cancer increases by two percent,” Gofman said. He was Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology in the University of California at Berkeley.
Much of the advantage of using thermography is in securing a competent family history and creating an accurate baseline for each patient. That usually evolves through repeat visits, but can be established in as few as two. Yet, Tomey says, an abnormal thermogram is 10 times more significant in determining risk than family history of the disease.
Right from the start, there are differences between the two test processes.
See Part 2 for more information on thermography.
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