MRI Proves a Better Test for Some Breast Cancers

Scan, Along with Mammogram, Suggested for High-Risk Women

On the left, a mammogram. On the right, an MRI scan of the same breast shows a large cancer.

On the left, a mammogram. On the right, an MRI scan of the same breast shows a large cancer. National Cancer Institute hide caption

itoggle caption National Cancer Institute

On the left, a mammogram; on the right, an MRI scan. The mammogram failed to show a large breast cancer, marked by the red arrow. National Cancer Institute hide caption

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itoggle caption National Cancer Institute

About one American woman in every seven will get a breast cancer diagnosis during her lifetime. But for five to 10 percent of the women who have genetic risk factors, breast cancer is almost inevitable. Mammograms miss most cancers in these high-risk women, but a study in the New England Journal of Medicine says a newer test is providing better results. NPR's Richard Knox reports.

Several studies have already suggested that women with a family history of breast cancer should be screened with a test that uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Now, the largest study to date, conducted in the Netherlands, says the MRI test finds twice as many breast cancers as a mammogram, and earlier.

There is a downside. MRI scans can lead to more false alarms and biopsies that turn out benign.

Specialists say that high-risk women should continue to have both tests; mammograms remain better at picking up certain types of cancer. Women with a normal risk are not advised to have the scan because of its rate of false alarms.

Current Recommendations

The National Institute of Cancer currently advises the following for women with breast cancer genes or high family rates of the disease:

— Screening mammograms once or twice a year, beginning at age 25-35 (or at least 5 years before the earliest age at which a breast cancer has been diagnosed in the family).

— Clinical breast examinations performed by a physician or nurse breast specialist, every 6 - 12 months starting at age 18.

— Monthly breast self-examination beginning at age 18.

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