How do Doctors Use an MRI for Breast Cancer?

Erin J. Hill

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a scan which is sometimes used for the detection of breast cancer. Using MRI for breast cancer has pros and cons, and each doctor or medical center may have individual testing procedures which are used. Additional tests are often performed along with an MRI for breast cancer detection, and sometimes an MRI is not used at all.

A biopsy involves the removal of tissue from within a lump or mass so that it can be studied under a microscope.
A biopsy involves the removal of tissue from within a lump or mass so that it can be studied under a microscope.

There are a myriad of ways in which doctors can test for breast cancer and other malignancies within the body. Using an MRI for breast cancer detection is not always the first choice, but it may be used when other tests have given inconclusive results. Sometimes an MRI scan will pick up on breast cancer tissue during another exam for an unrelated medical condition.

There are a myriad of ways in which doctors can test for breast cancer.
There are a myriad of ways in which doctors can test for breast cancer.

Although not always widely used, performing an MRI for breast cancer detection does have benefits. It is a sensitive technology which can pick up even small cancers. The main drawback is that an MRI cannot differentiate between cancers and other harmless masses within the breast tissue. This can lead to misdiagnoses of cancer as well as additional biopsies and other tests which would not have been needed using another testing procedure.

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An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.
An MRI machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create pictures of internal organs and bone structures.

There are emerging technologies which combine the sensitivity of an MRI with sound waves in order to determine the size and type of tissues within the breasts. This would make using MRI for breast cancer screening more efficient and would allow patients to avoid the stress of having false positive results.

MRIs are not widely used to detect breast cancer.
MRIs are not widely used to detect breast cancer.

The use of MRI in breast cancer detection is more common in women who have dense breasts, those who have had lumps removed from the breasts previously, and those who have breast implants. More conventional testing procedures are not always sensitive enough to detect cancer in these women. A combination of tests may be used in these cases as well.

If an MRI scan picks up on tissue which appears to be potentially cancerous, additional procedures may be needed. This can include additional scans, but more often a biopsy will be done. A biopsy involves the removal of tissue from within a lump or mass so that it can be studied under a microscope. Doctors are then able to determine if the tissue is cancerous or benign in nature. Both cancerous and non-cancerous lumps appear similar when using an MRI scan.

A radiologist can interpret differences in breast tissue in an MRI.
A radiologist can interpret differences in breast tissue in an MRI.

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