The Thermology Clinic, run by Dr. Blake Baggett, will open next week and use a new kind of screening to calculate someone's risk of developing breast cancer.

The process, called, thermography uses a medical-grade infrared camera to read heat signatures and see how certain tissues in the body are functioning.

For the last three and half years, Baggett, who is a Tuscaloosa native, has been a chiropractor serving the Tuscaloosa and Northport area and said he uses thermography to examine spinal injuries.

"I have a handheld device that simply rolls up the spine, and it gives us an inside look as to how well the nervous system is functioning," Baggett said.

The exciting technology motivated Baggett to explore other ways thermography could be used after he had a close friend pass away last year from her third battle with cancer, which started as breast cancer. 

"I think the first time I ever heard of thermography being used outside the spine was my first year of chiropractic school, and really, I never thought about the idea of offering that as a service here until my close friend passed away," said Baggett.

Thermography is not a replacement for mammograms, Baggett said, but it is a "complementary service."

Baggett says that while mammograms show doctors what is going on inside breast tissue, they do have some downsides. 

"One out of five breast cancers can go undetected even though a lady may choose to get an annual mammogram and even do an annual exam on breast tissue," said Baggett.

Baggett also said that research shows mammograms are "between 80 to 85% accurate" while thermography is "somewhere between 85 to 92% accurate", but "when you combine the two together, they become 95% accurate in detecting tumors and cancerous activity."

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Mammograms also don't tell doctors how the tissue is functioning, which is exactly what thermography does.

The reason that thermography can be used to detect breast cancer is that it detects the heat given off by diseased cells. 

"Most disease processes in the body produce more heat than normal tissue and cancerous activity is growing faster than normal tissue and is therefore going to produce more heat," Baggett said. "That can be detected in a thermogram."

Another downside to getting a mammogram is the compression and radiation, both of which are eliminated by using thermography.

"One of the greatest things about thermograms is it doesn't emit any radiation," said Baggett. "There's also no compression of any tissue. So it's absolutely risk-free, which is hard to find in healthcare nowadays."

While thermography is a useful test, there are a few reasons why it is not commonplace. To begin with, it does have its critics many of whom cite a Breast Cancer Detection Demonstration Project study conducted in 1979.

Bagget said that study had flaws, though, because the technology used decades ago is much lower quality than that of today, and there were no protocols for the patients used in the study.

Baggett says that to get a quality thermogram, patients need to be in a stable environment. He also said that it is important that patients don't engage in activities prior to their appointment that will raise their body temperature. This includes exercising, taking a hot shower, and riding to the appointment with the window down. 

"They had no protocols for any of that back then, the people taking the images in the study they weren't certified or trained to do so the people interpreting the images, we're not trained to do so," said Baggett.

 Another reason that Baggett thinks thermography is not widely popular is because many thermographers falsely advertise its abilities. 

"A lot of thermographers claim that it's a full-body scanner like we can follow organ pathology, but when you study physics, [you know] we can only reach surface temperature," said Baggett.

Lastly, Baggett said thermography is not as mainstream as it could be because early research claimed it had a high false-positive rate.

Baggett said that during the early study, "thermography would [show] an area that looked abnormal," and the doctors would take another test to confirm, but the tissue would look normal, which is why thermography was believed to have a high false-positive rate. This turned out to be confirmed as false after following up with the women that had "false positives, and they found that around 92% ended up developing cancer down the road."

"Rather than necessarily telling you you currently have cancer, which it can help determine, it also determines your risk," Baggett said.

That level of early detection can provide patients with other treatment options. 

"A lot of breast cancers are responsive to the amounts of estrogen in the body," said Baggett. "If we can detect those things early enough, we can refer you to a medical doctor and work with you on diet and lifestyle to try to get those things under control so that you never end up developing a cancerous tumor."

Now Baggett says that women should get a baseline thermogram when they are 20. Presuming everything is normal, women under 20 should come back every two to three years. Once a woman reaches the age of 30, Baggett says that research recommends they come annually. 

At this time, thermography is not covered by health insurance, but the Baggett's Thermology Clinic does its best to make use of this technology affordable. 

At the time of their opening, breast thermograms will be $199, but the clinic does offer a 90-day payment plan, which is $66 monthly for three months. 

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