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Breast Thermography: From Its Montreal Cradle to Crowdfunding Platforms

Does breast thermography work? Scrolling through crowdfunding pleas may give you the impression that it does, but scientific evidence and governmental agencies disagree

Medical students in Michigan want to help screen women in rural India for breast cancer and are trying to raise $12,000 to buy a portable breast thermography device. Donna in Ohio wants to raise $15,500 to provide this technology to women at her breast health symposium. And a number of women are similarly asking for contributions after having been diagnosed using breast thermography, to continue paying for on-going scans. All of this is happening on GoFundMe.

Researchers and journalists have recently started paying attention to how crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe are helping questionable practitioners earn money by allowing desperate people with incurable illnesses to raise funds for pseudoscientific interventions. A limited study discovered $6.7 million had been raised for unsupported and potentially dangerous treatments. For treatment regimens that included homeopathy, Canadian researchers reported pledges of over $1.4 million worldwide. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, it’s the equivalent of $10 million that has been raised for alternative cancer treatments on crowdfunding platforms since 2012.

Breast thermography—which is not the same as a mammogram—may look tempting on its surface. It doesn’t have the discomfort for which mammograms are infamous, and it eschews X-rays. And those medical students in Michigan want to bring this technology to help Indian women who can’t access mammograms, so the technology must be sound, right?

It started in Montreal

The method was developed by a Canadian physician,  Dr. Ray Lawson, who did his residence in experimental surgery at McGill University at the tail-end of World War II and who subsequently worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal until 1972.

He was particularly concerned by the rising rates of breast cancer at the time and what could be done to improve its early detection. In the early 1950s, he discovered a peculiar property of breast tumours: they emitted heat.

It makes sense. Cancer cells replicate very quickly and they create new blood vessels. This increase in blood supply gives them the nutrients they need to grow but also allows them to detach from the main tumour and sail around the body to seed metastases.

So if breast cancer has a heat signature, could it be detected and used to screen women? Lawson thought so and even appropriated some declassified Cold War infrared technology to turn it into a medical diagnostic machine, the Thermoscan.

This would-be Heritage Minute is a great story. It combines Canadian entrepreneurship with the repurposing of military technology toward a beneficial medical application.

But, again, does it work?

The evidence on breast thermography

While the technique has been investigated, the data to date show it to be quite unreliable, and the last thing we want from a cancer screening method is for it to only sometimes work. While the technology has improved since those early studies in the 1970s, no major randomized clinical trial of more modern breast thermography has been done. Both Dr. David Gorski and Professor Blythe Nilson have written more extensively about these scientific studies for Science-Based Medicine.

This body of research, holes and all, combined with the importance of reliable screening methods has led the Canadian Cancer Society and many governmental bodies to issue warnings about breast thermography. Health Canada has stated that the technique is not a substitute for mammograms and that they are following up with device manufacturers to ensure they do not advertise them for screening breast cancer in Canada. The FDA has echoed Health Canada’s recommendation.

As was reported in The Lancet Oncology last year, “thermography is unproven technology, promoted by false claims of effectiveness and the appeal of no radiation exposure or pain from breast compression.”

The better road to breast cancer screening

The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care recently looked at the evidence for breast cancer screening to issue recommendations. For women in their 40s who do not have an increased risk for breast cancer, the recommendation is not to screen. For women between the ages of 50 and 74, the task force recommends mammography every two to three years. For every age group, an informed discussion with a physician is encouraged. Breast thermography didn’t make the cut.

Despite this crackdown, breast thermography never truly went away. A number of thermography clinics dot the Canadian landscape, with their central office even offering turn-key solutions to add thermography to local offices. And there are mobile thermography clinics scurrying about as well.

One place where breast thermography is certainly alive is on crowdfunding platforms, which truly represent a new Wild West for unproven (and often disproven) medical interventions. Recently, GoFundMe temporarily banned a particularly worrisome German clinic from being the recipient of funding through its platform while it investigates the questionable services it offers.

The best screening method to date is still the mammogram, which a colleague of mine referred to as the “Squish ’n’ Scan”. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but it made me smile. Doctors may one day offer a less unpleasant test to screen for breast cancer, but for now “squishing” and “scanning” beats gambling on thermography.

Take-home message:
• Breast thermography (which is different from a mammogram) is not a good method to screen for breast cancer
• Breast thermography is still being offered in Canada, and many people are mentioning breast thermography in their public appeals on crowdfunding platforms
• The best screening method for breast cancer remains mammograms


@CrackedScience

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