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Eugene Weekly : News : 02.16.06

Everything is Illuminated

Thermal imaging gives picture of breast health.


Only a little nervous, I anticipated my appointment for a thermal imaging breast exam with family nurse practitioner Ingrid Edstrom, FNP, M.Ed. She has a new $65,000 heat-seeking camera code-named IRIS (Infrared Imaging System) designed to take pictures of the heat emitted from breasts, to visualize temperature gradients in tissue that can indicate problems. In a pre-appointment pep talk, Edstrom assured me that my experience with IRIS would be nothing like having a mammogram, a cold, comfortless experience I have thankfully yet to endure.

Edstrom practices from her home, a cozy two-story near Eugene's downtown. Walking in, there's a surge of warmth and the reassurances of daily life; comfortable furniture, a teapot on the stove, quiet music playing. "The only thing about practicing at home is that you always have to be cleaning up your dishes in case someone comes over!" joked Edstrom, an amiable woman with softly graying hair and only a tinge of her native Northeastern accent. Just off the kitchen IRIS waits to be warmed up, clicking and whirring every few minutes.

IRIS's needs are simple: I must sit in the private exam room with no top on for 15 minutes while my body reaches equilibrium with room temperature — a snug 70 degrees. IRIS blinks her thermal eye three times; then comes the "cold challenge," three more images taken after submerging my hands in icy water for one minute. This causes blood vessel dilation and reveals with clarity suspicious areas, which don't cool off like healthy tissue will. Edstrom provides large squares of fabric for light coverage while waiting, there is no physical contact, nothing invasive, no squeezing, and no radiation for a completely painless process. The clothes go back on and the consultation begins.

The theory behind the "cold challenge," Edstrom explains, is that when exposed to cold, the body's autonomic system kicks in and decreases blood flow to the surface, instead sending the blood supply to the core to keep body temperature equalized. "The same thing happens with the breasts. If you put your hands in the cold water what it should do is it should get cooler all around in the breast tissue itself," Edstrom explained. "If you have an inflammatory issue that may be a pre-cancerous issue, what happens is that the pre-cancerous cells don't care about this autonomic response and they don't clamp down."

The cold challenge can reveal not only what parts of the breast might have an "inflammatory issue," but also if the lymph node is engaged in "feeding" this abnormal tissue and what blood vessels are being used to nourish this problem area. "What you're looking for is that it should get cooler in the lower scan after the cold, or darker in this case, and it should be evenly darker," she said. A symmetrically cool and dark breast is the picture of a healthy breast.

Edstrom sends IRIS's images via a secure Internet connection to a doctor with 33 years of interpreting experience, Philip Hoeckstra with Therma-Scan Lab. He and his staff check the images at 26 different points of interest then relay those results back to Edstrom about 48 hours later.

"I want to be in the practice of breast health, not breast disease," Edstrom said. She had her own infrared breast scan done a few years ago, which picked up an area of hardening tissue. Through nutritional therapy she was able to reverse those changes. "I felt that the woman who did my scan saved my life," Edstrom said. "Because if I had not known that I had a problem, it would have just continued." In her case, a mass would have formed in four to five years, and had she not discovered it, she "would have been on the list of the statistics."

Not wanting to be in direct competition with Eugene's many other naturopathic physicians, she said she "felt this would be a wonderful service that the naturopaths could use, the physicians could use. It's a way that I can get this information out to the general public so they can start thinking about breast health."

Most breast lumps take 10 to 15 years to grow large enough to detect by hand. A mammogram can only detect lumps when they are 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch, after several years of growth. A thermogram detects breast irregularities at 1/16 of an inch. Thermographic information helps physicians pinpoint exactly where to take a biopsy if action is necessary, and provides a thorough picture to supplement other treatments.

Mammograms compress breasts and then irradiate them to take an X-ray image, a procedure which can be extremely uncomfortable both physically and mentally. It also exposes sensitive body tissue to potentially harmful radiation. Thermal images use no radiation and can be done as often as desired to monitor breast changes, which is particularly useful for women who have a family history of the disease, are younger than 40, or who want to closely monitor their breast health but dislike submitting to mammograms more often than is clinically necessary. The FDA recommends mammograms once a year for women over 40.

If thermography is such a wonderful tool, why isn't it more prominent? Edstrom explains that while this technology has been FDA approved since 1971, only four other IRIS machines are online in Oregon. Hers is the only one in Eugene, and can also be used to diagnose a wide range of other injuries and illnesses. The thermal camera can be used on injured backs, elbows, anywhere — in fact, it was chiropractors who originally adopted it.

Early studies involving the machine were botched because of untrained technicians and no standard protocol, she says. That's all changed, and Edstrom is hopeful that more women will turn to this simple device as a powerful tool to help them manage their breast health without feeling like painful mammograms are the only resort.


More About Ingrid Edstrom

Edstrom moved to Eugene from Massachusetts in August 2005 and decided to stay after a job offer with another physician fell through. She holds a master's degree in health education and is also a family nurse practitioner. In addition to breast health practices, Edstrom is experienced in natural hormone replacement therapies and stress and pain management programs. She can be reached at 1522 Lawrence St., Eugene, 302-2977. The following link will take you to a page on the FDA's website with information about breast cancer: http://www.fda.gov/opacom/lowlit/mammo.html

Read more about Therma-Scan Lab at http://www.thermascan.com/or contact them at Therma-Scan, Inc. 26711 Woodward Ave. Suite 204, Huntington Woods, MI 48070.