If Bal Gill had not chosen to visit the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions at Edinburgh’s Royal Mile earlier this year, there’s a good chance she would be facing a death sentence instead.
The tourist attraction in the Scottish capital is a popular destination for tourists to the city and offers, among other things, an opportunity to get a thermal image of your body, showing its varying internal temperatures.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, the technology is identical in its science, if not its application, to the screening tool, ThermoCheck®, that we use here at The Natural Doctor to help monitor breast health, including breast cancer.
What Bal’s image showed was significant tissue heat in one breast that wasn’t replicated in the other. The disparity was enough to persuade her to do some more research when she got home – which was when she learned about breast thermography.
Often when there is a problem in the body, the tissue becomes inflamed and hotter as our natural immune system kicks in to try to combat that problem.
In this way, abnormal tissue temperature is a warning sign of a potential problem. Furthermore, cancer cells generate heat from their increased metabolism and their stimulation of new blood vessels to nurture their growth.
Breast thermography uses thermal imaging cameras to capture these heat abnormalities. Undertaken regularly and from an early age – breast thermography is suitable for women of all ages, whilst mammography is not – it can identify potential health risk many years before the problem presents as a physical abnormality such as a thickening or lump.
Bal was right to be concerned and having discovered that thermal imaging was increasingly used by oncologists and private clinics like ours to help spot signs of breast cancer, she went to her GP and asked to be referred.
A positive diagnosis of breast cancer quickly followed. Luckily for Bal, it was caught early enough to be treated and six months and two of three planned surgeries later, her prognosis is good.
If you’re familiar with our work and our regular blogs, you’ll know that I’m constantly mystified by the persistent refusal of the NHS, Public Health England and the Third Sector to embrace thermography.
Some clinicians argue there is not enough clinical evidence (for this read: clinical trials) to support the view that thermography is reliable as a screening tool. However, trials show that when it is done correctly it has high levels of accuracy in detecting the presence of breast cancers.
By any comparison, breast thermography is a better screening option than mammography (although we argue the two should be used in a complementary monitoring strategy).
- Breast thermography is suitable for every woman of any age. Mammography is unsuitable for young women due to breast tissue density and is only offered routinely to women when they reach the age of 47 (there are exceptions to this, notably where there is a family history of breast cancer);
- Breast thermography is non-invasive. Mammography requires the breast to be crushed between imaging plates – a process that there are some concerns may be detrimental to an existing breast cancer;
- Breast thermography carries no risk of irradiation. Mammography, which uses radiation to generate the image, can increase the risk of breast cancer especially in pre-menopausal women;
- The accuracy of breast thermography is as high as 95% under certain conditions. Mammography is nearer 70% positive;
- Breast thermography can identify potential risk up to a decade earlier than mammography would be able to spot the smallest tumour, giving women a chance to make lifestyle changes that could avoid contracting the disease altogether;
- Crucially, breast thermography can identify risk while mammography, even at its most accurate, can only confirm that you have an existing structural problem.
Bal Gill has a good chance of a complete recovery thanks to a chance image at a tourist attraction and her own presence of mind to take a photo of the image when she realised that her body thermogram was different to other women’s.
But the sad fact is, everyone woman can and should have the opportunity to have the same good fortune as a matter of routine.
The chance encounter with the thermal imaging camera in Edinburgh meant the disease was caught in its early stages, so although a mastectomy means Bal has paid a high price for her survival, she is nevertheless hugely grateful for the opportunity she was given to tackle the problem.
There are two issues here, though. The first is what might have happened if she and her family hadn’t visited the Camera Obscura & World of Illusions that day. The second is what would have happened if she had been aware of breast thermography before that day.
Let’s assume for a moment that Bal had never gone on that family visit. She is 41 years old, and so would not have been eligible for a regular mammogram. The chances are, the first she would have known about the disease was when she found a lump some time – possibly months or years later. By which time it may or may not have been too late to treat the disease.
If she had been aware of thermography? The truth is of course that she might never have elected to have a thermogram and she would have been in the same boat.
If she had opted for a thermogram there’s a good chance the risk would have been picked up earlier – perhaps early enough to have allowed her to avoid a mastectomy.
Actually, whether she would have elected to have a thermogram or not isn’t really the point. The real point is that the continued determination in the clinical world to ignore the potential benefits of thermography screening means she never really had the option.
As we say goodbye to October and Breast Awareness Month for another year, Bal Gill’s story is absolute proof that breast thermography can be a force for good in the war on breast cancer. It’s time our clinical decision-makers got on board with it.