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How much would you pay for a test that might suggest the start of a cancerous tumor at its earliest stage – $500, $1,000, $5,000?

That’s the conundrum of thermal imaging, a diagnostic tool considered meaningless by many doctors but helpful by others, particularly those who have glommed on to growing evidence that suggests inflammation is the source of much disease.

Carol Knapp is among the believers. She’s learned how to take such images for those willing to fork over as much as $380 for a greater piece of mind. Roughly 90 percent of her customers are women, she said, and most seek a better glimpse into their breast health.

“Thermography sees physiology, the happenings before a mass develops. Your mammography, your ultrasound, they’re looking for structure, a mass, something that’s already there,” said Knapp, a lifelong resident of Holley – near Albion in Orleans County – and office manager for Dynamic Thermal Imaging.

The Rochester-based company serves much of upstate New York and parts of northern Pennsylvania. Knapp spends one day a month each in leased space at the beHealthy Institute on Main Street in Hamburg and the office of Khristeena Kingsley, a midwife, on Lafayette Boulevard in Williamsville. She usually sees five to 10 clients during visits to Erie County.

What is thermal imaging?

We use a sensitive infrared camera and we take images. Through computer software, we’re able to measure the amount of heat we are radiating from our bodies – inflammation. We should not have a lot of inflammation in our bodies. Inflammation is the root of all disease, so if there’s inflammation, that’s an indication something needs a little bit of tweaking.

As far as the breast area goes, we should not have a lot of activity through the breast area. Certain pathologies have certain patterns and doctors who work for the company are able to distinguish when they look at these images what the inflammation could be caused from. That gives us a better picture and enables us to focus on the areas of concern and address them, and hopefully resolve them.

If it’s before a mass develops, is this kind of a warning shot?

It could be an indication that something could be developing. In order for there to be a mass, it needs a blood supply. That means there has to be a vascular feed to it and that’s going to radiate heat. That’s what thermography is going to see, that hot spot that’s there. Thermography can also see if the warmth is fibrocystic or has to do with hormonal changes, or if it has to do with something more serious … so it gives us a much earlier chance to turn things around.

It is not a replacement to mammography. Mammography has its place, ultrasound has its place. This is an additional tool available to us, and why not choose a tool that’s not going to cause any harm?

Is radiation used in this process?

No, there’s nothing. It’s 100 percent safe. Anybody can use it: New mothers; pregnant woman, if they find something, can come in and it’s not going to do any harm. For women with breast implants, it’s wonderful, because we’re not touching, we’re not compressing at all.

When you’re doing a scan, do you tend to do a full-body scan or focus on a particular area?

It depends on what a person wants. Our choices are breast scans for women ($175), an upper body scan ($295) and we have a full-body scan ($380).

Does insurance cover this?

At this point, no insurance covers thermography. We encourage people to submit bills to their insurance carriers … and declinations usually look something like this: “According to MVP Health Care’s Imaging Procedure policy, there is insufficient evidence in the peer-reviewed literature to support that Thermography/temperature gradient is effective and is, therefore, considered investigational.’ ”

I see a computer and piece of equipment. Take us through the thermal imaging process.

This is a camera and this is a laptop. We log onto the computer and get into the program and take the images. For a breast scan, a woman is sitting and we take six images. There’s different position points (along a circle drawn) on the rug and they go to each position. For upper and full body, part of it they’re sitting and part of it they’re standing. We do the body in sections. We do the head first, in six positions, then we do a close-up of the neck area, then we do the breast area, then we do arms, then torso, legs and hands and feet …

We do not interpret the images. We’re just taking them. We email these to the doctors at Meditherm EMI, out of Florida. They are medical doctors who interpret these scans. These medical doctors have had two additional years training in thermography. Then we call the patient and go over the results with them. We’ll send them all their images and a complete written report. … It’s up to our patients to follow through with their (primary care) practitioner.

How long does a scan last?

A breast scan, we block off half an hour; a full body scan we block off an hour. It doesn’t take that long; the paperwork takes the most time. We do a complete medical history.

Does it have to be colder in the room when you’re doing this?

Yes, we’re supposed to be at 67 or 68ish. The body has to be cooled off. We don’t want you coming in having freshly exercised or having a massage. We want you to be even temperature or cooler. It makes things stand out.

Some sources of inflammation can indicate pain?

Where we feel our pain is not always where it is stemming from, so this can help determine where pain is stemming from. If people like acupuncture and massage, when they’re doing the full body scan, it’s a great picture that they can bring to their therapists. It can be an indication of certain trigger points that can be worked on to help relieve pain.

In some cases, if you see some heat in the body, might that not mean anything at all?

It could. It could be hormonal, fibrocystic – denser breasts – it could be myofascial, a muscle strain in certain areas of the body. You’d want to follow up on this (with a primary care physician). If our scan shows something that is questionable, our doctors will recommend clinical correlation. That means you follow up with your practitioner and see what they recommend, whether it’s mammogram or CAT scan, ultrasound or MRI. So you’ve got the combination of us looking for physiology and MRI, ultrasound looking for structure. When you combine those, it gives an early chance of detection. … It’s easier to work with 1,000 cells than a million cells.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

On the Web: Learn more about thermal imaging, and the debate over it, at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh