Because cancer is the second leading cause of death in the US, it’s understandable that it gets a great deal of press coverage. The downside, however, is that a lot of misperceptions get reinforced over time. When we constantly read or hear about cancer in the news, it generates fear. The overall impression of most people seems to be that a) cancer is a death sentence, and b) all cancers grow quickly.
I’m happy to say, the public is wrong on both counts.
The assumption that most cancers are fast-growing has led to the approach that early detection and fast treatment is the best defense. Unfortunately, this fear-driven approach to find even the smallest anomalies in tissue and treat them as fully developed cancers is leading patients to make decisions they later regret. Breast cancer is one of the areas where this rush to treatment is most prevalent.
Since the 1960’s, the mammogram has been the most trusted method of breast cancer screening in women. If an irregularity was found, a woman could expect a biopsy and find herself in treatment within weeks or even days.
Today, new research is showing that mammography’s success rate is highly inflated because, as a screening tool, it’s much better at identifying slow-moving, non-aggressive cancers rather than the more serious kind.
High survival statistics from millions of women who detected their cancer via mammogram aren’t due to early detection, but because their cancers were slow-growing and even dormant.
A common occurrence
One of the biggest reasons for the inflated mammogram early detection survival rates is a common breast pathology known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). This condition, which affects a high percentage of women, often lays dormant in a woman’s body her entire life. Incredibly, DCIS is now being called stage zero breast cancer. I can’t even begin to explain that kind of reasoning.
DCIS has been the subject of many studies, but two published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and the British Journal of Cancer examined a wide cross-section of autopsies of women in their 20’s through 80’s and made an important discovery: more than 40% of the women had DCIS in their breast tissue at the time of death. That means they lived happy, healthy lives for decades until something else killed them like a car accident or heart attack. This is important because since 1980, DCIS has increased 300% and accounts for 25% of all early stage cancers detected by mammography, for which millions of women have been rushed into unnecessary, harsh treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, and various surgeries like mastectomies.
The epidemic of overdiagnosis
An interesting point was made when the New England Journal of Medicine released a study in 2012 that looked at breast cancer trends in women over 40 from 1976 to 2008. All breast pathologies were included, from DCIS to late-stage cancers. From the time mammography was introduced on a large scale in the US, a simultaneous doubling of early-stage breast cancer diagnosis occurred. Before mammography was introduced, 122 women per 100,000 were diagnosed with early-stage breast cancers, and afterwards that number rose to 234. Once the researchers averaged out the women with late-stage cancers and those under 40, they came to this startling conclusion:
“Breast cancer was over-diagnosed (i.e., tumors were detected on screening that would never have led to clinical symptoms) in 1.3 million US women in the past 30 years. We estimated that in 2008, breast cancer was over-diagnosed in more than 70,000 women; this accounted for 31% of all breast cancers diagnosed.”
And it continues… “Despite substantial increases in the number of cases of early-stage breast cancer detected, screening mammography has only marginally reduced the rate at which women present with advanced cancer… and that screening is having, at best, only a small effect on the rate of death from breast cancer.”
This study got a lot of attention and has been instrumental in eroding some of the blind trust women and healthcare professionals have placed in mammograms and the idea that early detection along with the rush into harsh, unnecessary treatments saves lives.
In 2000, the Archives of Internal Medicine examined the records from a study performed at Yale-New Haven Hospital in 1988 where medical records were reviewed for 233 women with breast cancer who all had an excellent prognosis. The reviewers came to this conclusion not because the cancers were detected early, but because they were either slow-growing or dormant, requiring minimal treatment. (Of the study participants, 31 were diagnosed with DCIS.) Of these women no one died from cancer or experienced a recurrence, but half of them did choose to have a mastectomy.
Breaking with tradition
In light of this significant information, one respected healthcare institution made the brave decision to break from tradition. The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is a national independent volunteer coalition of healthcare experts that makes evidence-based recommendations regarding medical prevention services such as screenings, medications, and other interventions. In 2009, the USPSTF stated that it no longer recommended a yearly mammogram for women between the ages of 40 and 49. Instead, the organization advised that the choice to have a mammogram should be the result of an informed decision between each woman and her doctor. For women over the age of 50, the recommendation is every two years.
In October 2015, the American Cancer Society (ACS) changed its own mammogram recommendations to a yearly mammogram for women beginning at age 45, and every two years for those after 55. Additionally, the National Cancer Institute now recommends a mammogram every one to two years for women over 40.
Results and radiation
Another problem with the early detection ideology is that mammograms return a false positive scan 10% of the time. Simple statistics prove that if you have a mammogram every year for a decade, you’re working your way right into a biopsy. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed this to be exactly the case for 50% of women who get yearly mammograms. Even more revealing, a 1988 Danish study published in Lancet titled “Is Screening for Breast Cancer with Mammography Justifiable?” reviewed seven randomized controlled studies on mammograms, with researchers stating that mammograms didn’t contribute to saving the lives of women in any way that could be supported by statistics. They also mentioned the volume of unwarranted medical interventions like biopsies that were routinely performed after mammograms, as well as a 20% increase in mastectomies, most of which were unnecessary.
Another fact the radiology industry keeps quiet is that the level of radiation a woman is exposed to during a mammogram isn’t exactly safe. Radiation can be measured in several ways and depending on the method, the amount of radiation in one mammogram is 1,000 times stronger than a chest x-ray. Frequent exposure at this level from yearly screenings actually increases a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer, especially for large-breasted women who require multiple images per breast. A study from the Netherlands found that even amongst women who were at a higher risk of breast cancer for genetic reasons, those who were exposed to mammography radiation were 1.5 times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who were not. Additionally, high risk women who were exposed before age 20 increased their occurrence of breast cancer by 2.5.
High risk or not, it seems clear that the younger a woman is and the more consistently she’s exposed to mammography radiation, the more likely she is to develop breast cancer (which is why agencies that support mammograms don’t recommend them before age 40 or 45).
Fortunately, there’s a better, non-invasive, non-toxic, highly accurate, and pain-free way for women to have breast cancer screenings. Thermography uses infrared imaging to measure heat activity inside the breast as all cancer starts with inflammation at the cellular level and inflammation generates heat. It’s also excellent at detecting increased blood flow to the breast as cancer needs additional nutrients to grow. New blood vessel growth becomes visible, revealing new networks built specifically to support nourishment and growth for a developing tumor.
The amazing aspect of thermography is that because it’s looking for heat-related anomalies, it can detect cancerous activity at the cellular level before a viable tumor even takes shape. In fact, thermography is so sensitive that studies have shown it can detect cancerous activity 8-10 years before any other screening method. (In contrast, when a tumor is finally detectable either through self-exam or mammogram, it’s had a seven-year head start, often doubling in size multiple times during that period.)
Over 800 peer-reviewed studies have shown that thermography is 95% accurate in identifying early-stage breast cancer. Additionally, in 2003, The American Journal of Radiology published a study that used thermography to screen women who’d previously had a suspicious mammogram and results showed it was 97% accurate in detecting breast cancers.
As if that news isn’t good enough, thermography is pain-free because heat sensitive cameras simply scan the breasts and make no contact with them. Density, scar tissue, and implants do not hinder its accuracy because it’s not taking an x-ray of physical tissue, which is also the reason it’s completely non-toxic with zero radiation exposure (even making it safe for women who might be pregnant or breastfeeding).
What’s old is new
Thermography sounds like a new invention, but it’s actually been around since the 1940’s. In fact, in 1982 it was FDA approved as an adjunct screening method for breast cancer — so why didn’t you know about it?
The influence behind the radiology industry would prefer that you have mammograms.
That’s usually how these things go; follow the money. By equating DCIS with breast cancer and the consistent false positive rate, mammograms generate a large revenue stream that supports surgeons and lab analysis, as well as chemotherapy and radiation services.
For more information on thermography, you can visit the Pacific Chiropractic and Research Center Infrared Imaging at breastthermography.com and the International Academy of Clinical Thermography at iact-org.org.
When searching for an imaging center that’s right for you, there are a number of things to note. You’ll want to confirm that the drift factor of the equipment is no greater than 0.2 degrees C to provide the proper image clarity. Because this is a heat-sensitive procedure, the room shouldn’t be warmer than about 72 degrees F. The procedure should take place in a windowless room, and the scans should (preferably) be read on site, not sent out. The doctor should be the one to go over your results with you, and always confirm certifications and credentials. On average, thermograms cost between $150 and $250 around the country and generally aren’t covered by insurance.
In conclusion, I want to say that I am not completely anti-mammogram — just when they’re unnecessary, which tends to be most of the time. Why expose yourself to dangerous radiation, the inevitability and trauma of a false positive, and the painful biopsy that follows when there’s a safer alternative? I would suggest using both thermogram and mammogram to your maximum advantage.
Having a yearly thermogram is excellent healthcare prevention. If any irregularity presents itself on a thermogram, discuss with your doctor the possibility of following it up with a mammogram. That’s breast cancer prevention performed properly.
For more information on Dr. Sadeghi’s services and public presentations please visit him at Be Hive of Healing Integrative Medical Center. You can also sign up for his monthly holistic health newsletter or get a copy of his yearly wellness journal, MegaZEN. Dr. Sadeghi is also the author of two books, Within: A Spiritual Awakening to Love and Weight Loss, and The Clarity Cleanse: 12 Steps to Finding Renewed Energy, Spiritual Fulfillment, and Emotional Healing.