What is the role of MRI in breast cancer screening?

Updated: Apr 10, 2019
  • Author: Erin V Newton, MD; Chief Editor: Marie Catherine Lee, MD, FACS  more...
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In an effort to overcome the limitations of mammography and ultrasonography, MRI has been explored as a modality for detecting breast cancer in women at high risk and in younger women. A combination of T1, T2, and 3-D contrast-enhanced MRI techniques has been found to be highly sensitive (approximating 99% when combined with mammography and clinical breast examination) to malignant changes in the breast.

MRI has been demonstrated to be an important adjunct screening tool for women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations, identifying cancers at earlier stages. However, breast MRI has limited use as a general screening tool, with a 10-fold higher cost than mammography and poor specificity (26%), resulting in significantly more false-positive reads that generate significant additional diagnostic costs and procedures.

According to the only study conducted to date using a control group, annual MRI-based screening among BRCA1 and BRCA2 carriers resulted in a significant 70% reduction in the hazard of developing stage II-IV (large or node-positive) invasive breast cancers (HR, 0.30; 95% CI, 0.12-0.71) compared to BRCA1 and BRCA2 carriers not undergoing annual MRI examinations. [18] Importantly, while the comparison group was instructed to undergo routine mammography screening, the majority of cancers were reported as self-detected. While these findings are not from a randomized setting and may suffer from unmeasured confounding that impacted the estimated effect of MRI, they provide support from a large population of BRCA1 and BRCA2 carriers for the beneficial use of MRI for the earlier detection of cancers.

Remaining unclear is the overall impact of earlier detection in this patient population on survival; a question that could not be addressed due to short follow-up.

For more information, see Magnetic Resonance Mammography.

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