The routine medical test for breast cancer is mammography, a procedure which involves squeezing the breast between two plates and taking an X-ray picture.
But mammography has a number of serious drawbacks. It is highly inaccurate, particularly in young women, leading to harmful biopsies and exposing women needlessly to cancer-causing radiation (WDDTY vol 14 no 10).
What to do instead
* Examine yourself regularly and have periodic clinical exams by a trained nurse or doctor - shown to be more reliable than mammograms for picking up cancer (N Engl J Med, 1998; 338: 1089-96)
* Look to ultrasound - safer, but not much more reliable, than mammography
* Consider thermography, which measures skin temperature. Cancer 'heats up' the temperature of skin adjacent to a tumour, largely because of the increased blood flow and metabolism (Can Med Assoc J, 1963; 88: 68-70).
Thermography may pick up cancers as much as eight to 10 years earlier than mammography; in one study, it picked up half of all early cancers while mammography identified only up to 10 per cent (Thomassin L et al., Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Thermology, New York: Plenum Press, 1984: 575-9). The accuracy of the test is similar to or better than that of self-exams and mammography (for thermography, contact The Chiron Clinic, 121 Harley Street, London W1G 6AX (tel: 020 7224 4622; www.thechironclinic.co.uk).