Recently there have been some studies showing that for women at high risk of breast cancer, annual mammograms may increase their risk of contracting the disease.

Women with a genetic disposition or familial history need to begin screening at a younger age, some as early as 20 years of age, because they often develop cancer earlier than women of average risk. Since every medical intervention is associated with risks, there was some concern the low levels of radiation emitted during the mammogram may be a cancer risk. And because science is self correcting, (unlike some other types of self proclaimed “health care”) studies were conducted to test the hypothesis.

One such study, described in a press release on EurekAlert! (and I’ll explain why I’m discussing a study from a press release in a moment) reported that women at high risk of early onset breast cancer receiving annual mammograms showed an average increased cancer risk 1.5 times greater than that of high-risk women not exposed to low-dose radiation. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

Breast cancer is second only to lung cancers as the biggest cancer risk for women, so health authorities take such findings very seriously. Even if, in this case the authors warned that the study was a small sample size and should be interpreted with caution. Nevertheless, the American Cancer Society recommends that some women at high risk (greater than 20 percent lifetime risk) should have MR imaging (MRI) or ultrasound every year, typically beginning at age 30, instead of mammograms.

But one newsgroup is not treating these findings with caution. The alternative medicine website “Natural News” reported today that “Study verifies mammography screenings cause cancer “. Not only is the headline misleading but the text, adapted from the press release is rather inaccurate.

Take this line from the press release published on EurekAlert!;

Alternative screening methods such as ultrasound and MRI may be made available to younger women, but are generally used as an adjunct to mammography.

Which was reported by Natural News as;

Ultrasounds, MRIs, and heat thermography screenings are some alternatives that do not expose patients to radiation.

Somehow thermography was slipped in there are as a valid alternative to mammograms, even though it is not mentioned in the press release.

In fact, thermography is not recommended by the following cancer bodies (as of May 2007) as a tool for diagnosing breast cancer.
– BreastScreen Australia
– National Breast Cancer Centre
– Royal College of Radiologists of Australia and New Zealand
– American Medical Association
– American Cancer Society
– Cancer Research UK
– Mayo Clinic, USA
– Australian Therapeutics Goods Administration
– Medicare Australia.

This however, is simply more evidence for Mike the Health Ranger, author of the story (who by the way is not an oncologist, a doctor, or a scientist) that

…mammograms are really “repeat business machines” for the cancer industry.

He declares that this small scale, preliminary study is evidence that there is

…no reason for any women to ever receive a mammogram ever again.

And that;

Ultrasound and thermography should now be the new standard for breast cancer detection screenings, as they do not subject women to excess radiation.

Thanks for the medical advice Mike. Seems like the thermography business now stands to make a packet load. But he’s not finished yet,

In fact, mammograms represent the slickest marketing gimmick we’ve ever seen in modern medicine. It’s a technology that recruits new patients by actually causing the disease is claims to “detect.”

Well then it’s not doing a very good job, since this only works for women at high risk already.

But, there is a very good reason why thermography is not the preferred method for detection of breast cancers and no Mike, it’s not because of the “Big Cancer” wanting to line it’s pockets. It’s because it it not a very sensitive technique, therefore it can miss cancers.

In line with this, the following statement appears on the Breast Screen website

“Studies have shown that a tumour has to be large (several centimetres in diameter) before it can be detected by thermography (Homer 1985). Screening mammograms have the ability to detect breast cancer at a much smaller size, and therefore to reduce deaths from breast cancer. Less than 50% of breast cancers detected by mammography screening have an abnormal thermogram (Martin 1983).”

So it appears that if women only use thermography, there is a much greater risk that their cancer will be missed.

The final word goes to the study:

In general, early detection with mammography and prompt treatment can significantly improve a woman’s chances of survival. More than 90 percent of women whose breast cancer is found in an early stage will survive. For young, high-risk women and their doctors, it is important to weigh the benefits against any potential risk when making a decision about annual breast cancer screening with mammography.

So whilst mammograms may best be avoided if you are a woman in a high risk group, for others they are the most sensitive technique currently available for early breast cancer detection. This study certainly does not say they “cause cancer” and you should certainly not be taking advice from an alt. med. website or from a guy who makes his living from pimping alt. med. products.

And likewise, don’t take advice from me. Talk to your doctor.

References: Homer MJ 1985: “Breast Imaging: Pitfalls, controversies and some practical thoughts” Radiological Clinics of North America 23: 459-471. Martin JE 1983: “Breast imaging techniques, mammography, ultrasonography, computed tomography, thermography and transillumination” Radiological Clinics of North America 21: 149-153

Listen to Dr Rachie reports this week on the Zone for more information about thermography for breast cancer. Woo!

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