Action News Investigation: Thermal imaging for cancer

In 2016, an emergency surgery revealed Kathy Newell had cancer in her appendix. It was a moment that changed her life.

"I didn't have any symptoms prior," said Newell. "The doctors said this surgery saved [my] life."

That scare left Newell wondering if she had cancer anywhere else. The Chester County native turned to Dr. Stephen Conicello at the Agape Institute, and what she said was his promise about a "state of the art test" called thermal imaging.

"He told me about how it can detect cancer in your body before you have any symptoms. [He said] it's more effective than a mammogram," Newell said.

Newell paid nearly $10,000 to be a part of Dr. Conicello's wellness program-- which included two thermal imaging scans that allegedly map heat patterns in the body, to identify the early signs of everything from breast and prostate disease, to heart attacks and strokes.

"And the report came back clear," she said. "No cancer in my body."

So for the first time in 15 years, she says she skipped her annual mammogram. But Newell wasn't cancer free -- she was ultimately diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer that the thermal image did not detect.

"I absolutely think it could have cost me my life," said Newell.

The FDA has approved thermography for use along with other tests for evaluating known cancers, but both the FDA and the American Cancer Society said it has not been proven effective as an independent screening tool.

"I do believe that that's dangerous. That can impact a woman's life," said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, American Cancer Society. "The claims are misleading. The FDA believes the claims are misleading."

We visited Dr. Conicello's Downingtown office and attended one of his Thermal Imaging Seminars. After the seminar, we asked about his claims that thermal imaging can detect precursors to breast cancer 8 to 10 years before mammograms.

"I'm not aware," said Dr. Conicello. "I think women should still keep up with their mammograms."

In a statement, Dr. Conicello said he tells patients thermography "is not a substitute or replacement for other detection methods," but his brochures warn about the potential risks of mammograms, including radiation.

We asked if Conicello thought it was false advertising to say thermal imaging can detect breast cancer early when we know of a case where it didn't.

"It's detecting the pre-cursors of that," he said.

But not everyone may agree. We asked Conicello to comment on the case of Kathy Newell.

"I can't comment on that," said Conicello. "That is a private patient confidentiality."

We also asked Conicello about records showing his chiropractic license was placed on probation in South Carolina for allegedly committing dishonorable, unethical and unprofessional acts that are likely to deceive and defraud the public by misrepresenting his training.

That's when Conicello walked away saying, "I think we are done."

Newell said she received a refund for $1,000 from Conicello's office. She said she now plans to file a complaint with the Medical Board.

Conicello told us he would meet for an on camera interview, but later declined. His office provided the following written response to our questions:

We asked:

On March 2nd, 2016 Kathy Newell had a scan in your office that found she did not have any issues in her breasts. In April, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and came back for her screening scan on May 1, 2017. Neither of the scans showed she had breast cancer.

-Can you tell us why you believe Newell's two scans did not detect her breast cancer?
-Kathy Newell says she was religious about getting an annual mammogram, and says she had done so for the 15 years before getting her thermal image. She says you told her there was no need to have a mammogram and so she did not go get one in 2016. What is your response to that?

Authorized Response:

Thank you for your inquiries and on your focus on Women's health, especially as October 2017 is Breast Cancer awareness Month. As a licensed Chiropractor and wellness provider, I am dedicated to the advancement of health, wellness and the prevention of illnesses. AGAPE and I believe that a person's wellness is achieved through effective professional medical care with that person's PCP as well as through non-traditional natural health options, like those provided at AGAPE. We at AGAPE advocate for the combined effort of medicine and natural wellness methods. Life-long wellness it is not a "one or the other" option, it is the combined "medical-natural" effort that we advocate for our patients as we feel that this is the most responsible and appropriate approach people should take for their health needs.

While I have received the signed waiver for Ms. Newell, our policy at AGAPE is based upon the HIPPA laws, as such AGAPE cannot divulge personal health information on a person without a specific HIPPA release. We are also very concerned about revealing private medical information on a person via the media as once such information is released it is never retrievable. Without revealing any personal information about Ms. Newell, we can say that we respectfully disagree with some of the information that you have been provided from Ms. Newell about the scan results and the wellness guidance provided by AGAPE. HIPPA laws otherwise prevent us from commenting directly about this individual's private health information. However, in order to answer other questions you have presented, we can offer a generalized response as to our consistent approach we take with all patients on the benefits, risks and options that people have for their health care management.

To this extent, let me say that at AGAPE we view our role to be one that is in cooperation and concert with professional medicine and a person's primary health care provider. AGAPE is not a medical office, we provide wellness services, including thermography as a way to potentially detect health concerns and promote wellness. When we see people related to thermography we explain to them that this is an additional "option" for detecting potential health concerns, it is NOT a substitute or replacement for other detection methods (like a mammogram). If a thermography scan reveals something that is abnormal or even reflective of a concern, we advise people to immediately seek a consultation with their PCP. We also follow-up with that person to determine whether they sought medical assistance and the results of that medical examination. If the thermo-scan is viewed as within normal limits, we inform people that the scan did not reveal any specific concern, but that does not mean that there is a NOT problem and that it is critical that they continue with their normal health care plans. We would never advise a person to not continue with their routine medical care management. All of our Thermography scans are read and interpreted by a separate provider who prepares the actual thermos-scan report. AGAPE sends the scans of our patients to Dr. Gregory Melvin, Chiropractor (Board Certified Clinical Thermologist) located at 8341 La Mesa blvd., La Mesa, Ca. 91941, (619) 303-5884. At AGAGE, we provide the patient with the report and address the findings with the patient made from the report.

There are indeed benefits and risks with the various detection options of Thermography, MRIs, CT scans, X-Rays and Mammography. The key benefit of thermography, is that since it does not expose people to radiation there is no risk in taking multiple scans in order to potentially detect a condition that would then require follow-up medical assistance. For instance, many women over the age of 40 take an annual mammogram. If a woman was not scheduled for her annual mammogram, but wanted to better manage Breast health, she could take a thermography scan monthly in order to "potentially" detect the immediate onset of a problem. If a concern from the scan was detected it would be possible for the person to then seek medical treatment BEFORE her scheduled annual mammogram. Additionally, at AGAPE, our written information to patients specifically informs the patient that thermography does not diagnose any disease or condition, (like cancer) it only can potentially reflect an area of concern that would then require medical assistance. This process is followed with all patients and those expressing an interest in thermography.

We asked:
-According to a brochure that Mrs. Newell received from the Agape Institute "thermography can detect physiological changes in the tissues 8-10 years before a mammogram can detect a mass." The same brochure discusses possible risks of getting a mammogram. Do you still believe that literature to be accurate? Or what is your response? You now say you are recommending women get a mammogram, but the attached brochure from Agape says they are dangerous

Authorized Response:

Thank you for your inquiries and on your focus on Women's health. Please understanding that neither I, nor anyone at AGAPE, has ever called, nor do we believe that mammograms are categorically "dangerous". Diagnostic detection devices, like X-rays, MRI's, CT-scans and mammograms use some form a radiation to produce an internal image. The radiation exposure does come with health risks that are well known and understood. However, it does not mean that a person should NEVER use radiation type detection systems, what it does mean is that if someone would like an option to more frequently assess and potentially identify a problem without the repeated risk of radiation, thermography is a viable and safe choice. Like any detection system there can be inaccuracies. To conclusively diagnose cancer a biopsy is needed.

We asked:
-The FDA's position is that thermography is useful when used in conjunction with a mammogram, but not by itself. What support do you have for your claims it can detect breast cancer and can be used as a screening device?

Authorized Response:

Thank you for your inquiries and on your focus on Women's health.

There is a broad range and depth of literature on this subject, but the provided link best addresses your question on this topic as it discussed the variety of different detection devices and how they each compare. This 2010 article from the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine (NIH/NLM) / National Center for Biotechnology Information, discusses the value of adding thermography to a woman health care plan to help in the potential detection of breast cancer. Additionally, I have attached to this response a list of other information about studies, research and data on thermography that you are welcome to review and share with your viewers.

We at AGAPE are deeply committed to the health and wellness of each person, we feel that this is only achieved by a combined approach of medical science and natural options such a non-radiological detection, fitness and diet.

In Health,
Dr. Stephen Conicello, DC

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