We discuss why mammograms are still the best option for catching breast cancer early through routine screening.

Tuesday 5 December 2017      Health information blog
Woman having a mammogram screening

Routine mammograms are very effective in screening for breast cancer but they aren’t perfect. Researchers are looking at ways of improving mammograms but promising advances such as tomosynthesis (a type of 3D mammogram) are still in development.

In the meantime, bold claims are often made of alternative methods that are better than mammograms. But don’t believe the hype!

In this blog we look at some of these mammogram alternatives and explain why they aren't suitable for routine breast screening. 

Thermography – what is it and does it work?

Thermography uses special cameras to create a heat map of your breasts. It claims to identify tumours based on the idea they grow faster and have a more active metabolism than surrounding healthy tissue, and so may show up as ‘hotspots’.

Thermography may seem appealing because its thermal cameras do not use harmful radiation and are completely non-invasive. But a number of research studies have shown that thermography is not an effective tool for detecting breast cancer. Compared to mammograms, thermography just isn’t sensitive enough; it actually fails to spot most breast tumours. Thermography isn’t as reliable as a mammogram either, as it often mistakes non-cancerous features for breast tumours.

That’s why thermography isn’t available on the NHS. Some private clinics do offer thermography, but the evidence is clear – it can’t reliably detect breast cancers and it is not worth the high fees that are often charged!

Isn’t ultrasound able to spot breast cancer?

Ultrasound is an essential tool in medicine. It is a safe, non-invasive technique that uses sound waves to build up pictures of the body. It is common to have an ultrasound alongside a mammogram to confirm a diagnosis of breast cancer.

But when it comes to routine breast screening, studies have shown that ultrasound is not good enough when used by itself – it misses too many breast cancers and incorrectly identifies non-cancerous features as breast tumours more than mammograms.

What about MRI?

MRI is another commonly used tool in medicine which uses magnets and radio waves to image your body. But like ultrasound, MRI falsely identifies non-cancerous features as breast cancer too often for it to be suitable for routine breast screening.

Are there any other options?

In short, no. There have been many claims over the years promising pain-free, safe and easy diagnosis – lights you can shine through your breast, special gloves that claim to enhance your detection of lumps – but there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support any of these claims.

In contrast, the ability of mammograms to accurately detect breast cancer is supported by a large amount of scientific data collected over many years.

The easiest method there is – being breast aware

Mammograms may not be perfect. But currently they are the best tool out there for spotting breast cancer early through routine screening. That’s why we recommend you attend your mammogram appointments when invited.

But if you want to give yourself the best chance of catching breast cancer early and having successful treatment, don’t just rely on routine screening. It is important that you stay breast aware. This simply means knowing what your breasts look and feel like normally, being on the lookout for any unusual changes, and getting them checked by your doctor.

Our information on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer can tell you what to look out for.


 

About the author

Dr Tom Beattie

Dr Tom Beattie is a Health Information Officer in the Public Health and Information Team at Breast Cancer Now. He has a PhD in molecular biology and is passionate about communicating accessible evidence-based scientific information to the public.

The Public Health and Information Team work to produce health information for our supporters that is both evidence-based and understandable. They also work on producing tools and resources to help people to reduce their risk of breast cancer and ensure that they’re doing all they can to detect breast cancer early.