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Health minister orders halt to thermography cancer tests

A local survivor of breast cancer dismisses thermographic screening for cancer as 'bunk.'

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A local survivor of breast cancer dismisses thermographic screening for cancer as 'bunk.' (CHRISTINA RYAN / POSTMEDIA NEWS ARCHIVES)

MANITOBA'S health minister has ordered a clinic in St. Boniface to stop using infrared thermal imaging -- or thermography -- to screen for cancer.

The Thermography Clinic on Tache Avenue has until Tuesday to indicate in writing to her department that it is complying with the order, Theresa Oswald said, adding the province is prepared to take court action if necessary.

The clinic was operating below the government's radar until recent national media reports cast a spotlight on thermography. Businesses that employ it tout it as a painless, non-invasive test that does not expose clients to radiation. They say it can provide an early warning of the possibility of breast cancer and other diseases.

Medical professionals and the Canadian Cancer Society disagree, saying the technology both misses cancers and produces false positives, causing clients unnecessary grief.

Oswald said her department took action against the local clinic -- the only one of its kind in the city -- after it obtained evidence Tuesday it had offered a client a diagnosis.

"We've asked them to... respond in writing no later than the fourth that they have in fact ceased and desisted all such spurious diagnoses," she said in an interview.

Debra Duprey, who has owned and operated the business for six years, refused to comment at length on Wednesday, saying she's discussing the Health Department's edict with her lawyer.

She said her clinic doesn't detect breast cancer per se but "abnormalities of the breast."

According to her website, clients are advised to have two breast scans -- the first setting a baseline -- three months apart. The procedures are said to cost more than $200. The images are sent to the United States for assessment.

Oswald said Manitoba requires all diagnostic labs to have a medical director and any readings of a scan are to be done by a Manitoba physician. She said she also has a "moral and ethical difficulty" with diagnosing potential breast cancer using a test that has not been shown to be scientifically valid.

Health Canada issued a statement Wednesday saying no thermography machines have been approved to screen for breast cancer in Canada.

"Health Canada is not aware of any clinical evidence that thermography can be used effectively as a screening technique for the early detection of breast cancer. As such, it may present a potential risk to women relying on the results."

Jason Permanand, a spokesman for the Manitoba division of the Canadian Cancer Society, said his organization does not recommend thermography. "There's no scientific evidence that shows it's effective in detecting breast cancer," he said.

Linda Venus, a local breast cancer survivor, applauded the province's action.

"I have never used it (thermography) and I really don't know anyone that has used it. But I know that it is bunk," said Venus, president of Chemo Savvy, a Winnipeg breast cancer survivors dragon boat team with 60 members.

She said the clinics prey on women who want to be proactive about their health but eschew traditional methods. "They look for alternatives," she said.

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