Thermography: Separating Fact from Fiction

If you watched Good Morning America and/or Nightline on February 12, 2019, you no doubt may have concerns about thermography. These programs aired a segment about two women who used thermography as a standalone test, which was interpreted by Dr. Gregory Melvin, a chiropractor. Dr. Melvin did not read any significant abnormalities in these women. Both of these women were later found to have stage 3 breast cancer.

Dr. Melvin and Linda Hayes, his technician, are well-known for not following the industry standards for thermography or the FDA guidelines. Many of the statements they made about thermography were completely false. Unfortunately, these television segments came to the conclusion that thermography is an invalid test, when the real issue is that Dr. Melvin and Linda Hayes have used the technology inappropriately and have made irresponsible and false claims that do not follow industry standards or FDA guidelines.

The reporters did an incredible disservice to the public by not accurately reporting about the research-proven value of thermography. They also failed to accurately report about the failures of mammography and why research has concluded that it too, should not be a standalone test.

Here are some facts about thermography and mammography that I hope will help clear up some of the confusion this poorly reported segment has created.

Thermography

Thermography is an infra-red picture of the body that measures heat and blood vessel patterns. It has been the subject of over 800 published studies, which document that it is able to pick up inflammation, infections, and functional concerns throughout the body that may not be otherwise evident. Studies show it can be particularly helpful for evaluating the health of the breasts.

Unlike all of the technologies that are currently available for evaluating the breasts (mammography, MRI and ultrasounds), thermography shines as a preventative tool rather than screening for breast cancer. Thermography is a physiological test that evaluates the health of the breast. It does not mine for cancer. The most exciting fact about thermography is that it is the only technology that can pick up abnormalities before they become cancer. Therefore, it is the only truly preventative technology. In lay terms, you can think of thermography as a thermometer that can show if your breasts are running a fever. When your breasts run a “fever,” they are inflamed and research shows have a significant increased risk of developing breast cancer in the future. The beauty of finding these changes so early is that simple diet and lifestyle improvements along with certain dietary supplements can reverse those patterns usually very quickly and stop the future progression to cancer.

Once a tumor forms, the findings on thermography can be variable. Sometimes we see very hot angry looking patterns that are highly concerning. Other times, the patterns can look benign and may even appear cold if the cancer cells have started to die in the center of the tumor. 

What we have learned about all the tests used for breast evaluation—mammography, MRI, US, and thermography—is that no test is perfect. None should be used as a standalone test. We have learned this the hard way by using mammography as the “gold standard” and standalone test for decades. But long-term studies have shown that the value of mammography has been highly overrated, and its drawbacks and shortcomings highly underrated. In fact, mammography has been shown to miss up to 50% of tumors, especially in women with dense breasts. Its ability to discern whether the problem it sees is actually a problem is even worse. When mammography identifies a “suspicious” area that requires a biopsy, those biopsies are found to be benign—or unnecessary—80% of the time! In addition, mammography is not recommended for women under age forty. The other tests can all miss tumors as well.

Research has concluded that multiple tests need to be done to obtain the best sensitivity (when a problem is present, it can be detected) and specificity (when a problem is detected, it actually is a problem). That’s why in addition to thermography, it is recommended that an anatomical test should also be done yearly—such as an ultrasound—along with physical examination. If there are any symptoms such as lumps, further investigation must always be done including a biopsy for a tissue diagnosis.

One of the patients featured in the ABC segments had a palpable lump. Dr. Melvin did not tell her to have a biopsy. This was the major problem. A biopsy should always be done if there is a lump regardless of what any test—mammogram, thermogram, ultrasound or MRI—may or may not show. Not recommending a biopsy for a breast lump is considered malpractice.

The ABC segment pointed out that Dr. Melvin’s brochure stated that thermography can diagnose cancer years before mammography and, therefore, was far superior. He also claimed that thermography can be used as a replacement for mammography. The fact is that mammography and thermography different types of tests that provide different information. Mammography is considered an “anatomical” test that can show problems after they have caused structural changes in the breast. Whereas, thermography is a “physiological” test that can pick up changes in heat and blood vessel patterns that may occur years before a structural change or cancer may develop. Research shows that the physiological changes identified by thermography are associated with an increased future risk of breast cancer. Again, one of the most important values of thermography is its ability to see physiological changes before a serious problem develops and, in a stage, where these patterns are easily reversible with simple diet and lifestyle improvements along with certain dietary supplements.

Please do not let the poor reporting of a story involving a chiropractor and his technician using thermography inappropriately and making false claims tarnish your views of this very valuable tool. Thermography truly is the only preventative technology available today. If used correctly, it can help you to monitor your health, let you know when you need to focus on healthy changes and help you to prevent serious future health issues.

Christine Horner, MD

Christine Horner, MD is a board-certified and nationally recognized surgeon, natural health expert, author, and advocate.

She is an interpreting physician for Physician Insights.