Thermography Breast Cancer Claims Can Be Misleading

Our hidden cameras capture some Bay Area technicians making questionable claims about thermography and how effective it is in detecting breast cancer

By Vicky Nguyen and David Paredes
|  Thursday, Jul 11, 2013  |  Updated 12:38 PM PDT
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Our hidden cameras capture some Bay Area technicians making questionable claims about thermography and how effective it is in detecting breast cancer. The FDA has approved thermography as a test women can use in addition to mammograms but not as a substitute. A cancer survivor shares her story to warn other women about the limits of this test. Investigative Reporter Vicky Nguyen reports in a story that aired on July 9, 2013.

Our hidden cameras capture some Bay Area technicians making questionable claims about thermography and how effective it is in detecting breast cancer. The FDA has approved thermography as a test women can use in addition to mammograms but not as a substitute. A cancer survivor shares her story to warn other women about the limits of this test. Investigative Reporter Vicky Nguyen reports in a story that aired on July 9, 2013.

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No one would argue that early detection of breast cancer saves lives, but some proponents of breast thermography are making exaggerated claims about what this imaging technique can actually do when it comes to finding cancer.

A thermogram looks impressive. It’s a rainbow picture of your body where each color represents a different temperature zone. Proponents of thermography say it’s a test that can detect changes that could possibly progress into a late-stage disease, such as breast cancer.

Thermography is offered at clinics across the Bay Area. It’s billed by some clinics as “more accurate” than mammograms and advertised as a test that can find cancer years before a mammogram would.

Problem is, the FDA says it has “no evidence” to support these claims, and that thermography is not an alternative to a mammography.

The Investigative Unit went undercover and found clinicians telling women “[thermography] does it equally as well or better than a mammogram” when it comes to detecting breast cancer, and that thermography is “very accurate, and it also has the ability to detect the changes we’re looking for many years before that mass would be able to be detected on a mammogram.”

Alma Arciniegas said she was told similar claims at a San Francisco clinic.

“Yes, they said it was so accurate, 90 percent accurate,” Arcieniegas said. “The results for me were just catastrophic.”

Arciniegas, a wellness coach and naturopath, said she was worried about the radiation from mammograms, so she turned to thermography. She showed her thermogram to NBC Bay Area and said the results indicated no problems with her left breast. But when her lymph nodes started to swell and she felt a lump, she went in for a mammogram. That’s when Arciniegas learned she had stage-3 breast cancer.

Her son, Camilo Mejia, said the diagnosis was devastating.

“[Thermography] was wrong, and if she had fully trusted it and not done anything else she probably would have died because the cancer would have kept spreading,” Mejia said.

The college freshman left school to come home and help care for his mother.

“This is a very painful, hard experience to go through,” Mejia said. “I wouldn’t recommend thermography for anyone.”

“I’m furious, I’m really angry I have to go through this,” said Arciniegas, who has now undergone a lumpectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy. She says she still has six more weeks of radiation and years of check-ups in her battle against her aggressive cancer. “I mean, it could have killed me.”

The Food and Drug Administration approved thermography in 1982 as a test women can use in addition to getting a mammogram, but warns it is not a standalone test to screen for breast cancer.

Still, that hasn’t kept some clinics in the Bay Area from making exaggerated claims about what thermography can do.

We found the following claims on various Bay Area websites:

  • “Thermography, as a single test, has 99% accuracy in identifying breast cancer in women in the 30 to 55 age group.”
  • “Thermography can detect abnormalities from 8 to 10 years before mammography can detect a mass”
  • “Since DII [thermography] measures the metabolic activity of cells, and cancer cells are highly metabolically active even when they are of such a small number to be undetectable by mammograms, DII [thermography] can pick up signs of breast cancer cells earlier than a mammogram. Thus, it is an excellent tool for early breast cancer detection.”

When asked about the claim that she made to our undercover camera that “the more inflammation the more chance you have of it turning into cancer,” Chelle Weber, CTT of East Bay Thermography offered the following clarification, “Just because you have inflammation does not mean you have cancer or that it will turn into cancer.”

The FDA says it is “not aware of any valid scientific evidence showing that thermography is an effective primary screening tool for finding breast cancer. The agency sent warning letters to health care providers and a manufacturer of thermography equipment because they made misleading claims about thermography, including claims that:

  • “Breast thermography may be used to screen for breast cancer and thermography is superior to mammography.”
  • “Thermography can provide the earliest possible detection of breast cancer eight to 10 years before a mammogram.”
  • “Breast compressions that are part of mammography can actually cause or spread cancer by pushing cancer cells into additional locations in the body.”

“The FDA lies all the time,” Dr. Len Saputo said. Saputo runs the Health Medicine Center in Walnut Creek.

The Investigative Unit returned to Health Medicine Center, the Walnut Creek clinic where the clinician said thermography “does equally as well or better than a mammogram.”

The Unit asked Dr. Saputo if thermography provides a false sense of security for women when it comes to breast cancer.

“No more than any other test, and far less,” Saputo said. When asked if he believes if thermography is more accurate than mammograms and whether it can find cancer before mammograms, Saputo said, “That’s correct.” But when NBC Bay Area pointed out that the FDA says it “has no evidence to support these claims,” Saputo said the FDA is “basically corrupt,” and that the agency is influenced by advocates of the mammogram industry.

His clinic charges $185 for a thermogram. Saputo said they perform about a dozen a week and have offered thermography for the past decade. Despite the existence of thermography since the 1960s, Saputo said there is no standardization when it comes to who interprets what the images really mean. He said he would like to see radiologists trained to read thermograms.

“You have to know where you’re going and who’s reading your breast thermogram,” Dr. Saputo said, who believes thermography should be approved as a standalone test for breast cancer.

But Dr. Bonnie Joe, Chief of Women’s Imaging at UCSF said, “We don’t think there is any evidence that shows [thermography] helps.”

Joe said thermography is not the standard of care, and in fact, she tells women not to spend their money on the test at all.

“We don’t think it provides any supplemental to standard breast imaging, and certainly it is not an adequate screening tool,” Joe said, adding that ultrasound is a better screening technique that provides actionable information.

NBC Bay Area asked if thermography provides any benefits.

“I don’t think so, not yet, and not that I have read,” Joe said. “Mammography works. It does save lives. It does help detect cancer early and we just don’t think there’s evidence to support thermography doing the same thing.”

As for Arciniegas, she’s documenting her recovery on a personal blog and website, and sharing her story to show that all of the colorful imagery from her thermograms didn’t provide her the life-saving information that was in the black-and-white mammogram images.

“This is serious business. It’s our life. It’s my life and it would have made a big difference if I were to catch [my cancer] at zero versus stage-3, Arciniegas said.

But her son said he is confident his mother will pull through.

“She always has a smile on her face. She’s always working through it, giving people advice," Mejia said. “I’m really proud of her.”

Do you have a tip for The Investigative Unit? You can call the Investigative Unit’s tipline at 888-996-TIPS or send an email to TheUnit@NBCBayArea.com.

Vicky Nguyen can be reached at vicky.nguyen@nbc.com. Follow her on Twitter: @vickydnguyen or on Facebook.

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