11/27/2012 16:14 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST

Controversial breast cancer screening offered in Montreal

A Montreal health clinic is using a controversial method it claims can detect early signs of breast cancer. Some say the non-invasive procedure is putting women at risk and clogging the system.

Thermography is recognized by some as the best way to screen for early signs of breast cancer by using thermal-imagery to outline increased blood-flow in parts of the breasts – which can sometimes be a sign of a tumour growth.

The Westmount Wellness Centre claims women who add thermography to their regular breast-health checkups see a 61 per cent increase in survival rates.

The naturopath clinic offers the service for the price of $250.

Last year, the United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered two U.S. clinics and a company that sells the equipment to stop making misleading claims about detecting cancer.

Alex Mostovoy, the director of the thermography service at the Westmount Wellness Centre, insists that thermography is not a replacement for mammograms.

"It's predictive. It allows women an early warning system so that we can sit down with them and deal with how to lower their risk factors," he said.

Cancer experts, on the other hand, say the method fails to effectively screen for tumours and can offer a false sense of security.

Dr. Antoine Loutfi, an oncologist and hematologist at the McGill University Health Centre, said he used thermography in the 70s to determine whether the new technology could replace mammograms or other radiation techniques.

"We did that for a few years. The pictures were always nice to look at – very colourful – but at the end of the day, after a few years, we did not find that we can pick up any tumour that is not picked up by a mammography," said Loutfi.

"I think it's not appropriate to give false hope to women by having this test, because this test can miss cancer," he said.

Service discredited in the U.S.

There are more than 50 thermography clinics and websites across Canada.

Though the FDA began cracking down on clinics that claim thermo-imagery can screen early signs of breast cancer, Health Canada has yet to take any action on clinics offering the services.

The federal health authority said though it did not approve thermographic equipment for cancer screening, it's up to the provinces to decide how it is used and by whom.

Because the service is offered by homeopathic clinics and not medical doctors, Quebec's College of Physicians said it is also not up to them to police the industry.

Thermography "clogging" ultrasound lists

According to the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation, a total of 6,200 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. An estimated total of 1,300 women died from the disease.

Dr. Nancy Wadden, who chairs the mammography accreditation program of the Canadian Association of Radiologists, said women are paying big money for thermography, which is "actually useless."

"These women have a significant number of false positives, so then they are coming and they are clogging up my ultrasound list and my mammogram list and then displacing the people who really need to have the test," Wadden said.

According to cancer experts, the best advice for women is to rely on trusted sources of information such as the Canadian Cancer Society before paying for any treatment.