Should MRIs Be Used To Screen For Breast Cancer?

An article released today by the British medical journal The Lancet suggests that MRI is more effective than mammograms in detecting early, non-invasive breast cancer lesions. (I could not find a link to this article when I posted this blog.)


The implications of the article and an accompanying editorial are that we could do a much better job of finding breast cancer earlier in its course, and save more lives from breast cancer than is currently possible by relying on screening mammography alone.


This is clearly going to be a controversial issue, given our reliance on mammography as the best available breast cancer screening tool for women at average risk.


For women at a high lifetime risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer, the American Cancer Society in March released a guideline suggesting that these women should have breast cancer screening with MRI in addition to regular mammograms.   However, the Society did not find MRI to be useful in women at average risk and recommended against its use in that circumstance.


The situation is further complicated by the fact that the number of centers nationwide who have the equipment and expertise to accurately read and follow-up on screening MRIs is very limited.   This is a point on which both the Lancet researchers and the authors of the Society’s guidelines agree.


What did the Lancet study report?


The theory behind the German researchers’ study was that we are applying the wrong criteria to MRI screening for the purposes of diagnosing early, non-invasive breast cancer (called DCIS, for “ductal carcinoma in situ”).


Traditional film or digital-based mammograms rely on patterns of calcium deposits in the breast to indicate that a suspicious lesion may be present.


As the authors point out in their study, these calcifications are the result of a cancer growing, then cells dying, and the “debris” from that process becoming calcified in the breast.


They go on to say that most studies of MRI in the screening of breast cancer rely on finding the same calcifications on the MRI that might be seen on the mammogram.


The key, however, to finding early breast cancers on MRI should rely not on detecting calcium deposits, but on finding patterns suggestive of increased vascularity, or blood vessel growth and blood flow, say the researchers.


When looked at this way, the authors concluded, the MRI has a much better chance of finding abnormal (possibly cancerous) lesions in the breast.


When they applied these criteria in a study where women had both an MRI and a mammogram—and where the radiologists who were reading the films were not aware of the results of either study—the doctors were able to find many more early DCIS lesions with the MRI than they were with the mammogram. 


This held true for all groups of women who participated, including women who were at high risk of breast cancer, women who had previously been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, and women who simply were anxious about the risk of breast cancer but had no predisposing family history or other risk factor which suggested they had a greater chance of developing the disease.


In addition, according to the study, the MRI was much more successful than the mammograms in detecting DCIS lesions that were considered “high grade,” which were those more likely to progress to more typical invasive cancer at some time in the future.


According to the authors, these are the lesions that we should be looking for.  If we found these lesions in greater numbers, they suggest, we would substantially improve the outlook for women who have breast cancer. 


In other words, find the high-risk non-invasive cancer before it becomes invasive.  The treatments would be simpler, and the outlook much better.


Interestingly in this study, and perhaps unexpectedly, routine mammograms were not as successful as MRI in finding these particular high-risk DCIS lesions. The difference in the ability of MRI to find these early cancers was substantially greater compared to mammography.


The implications of the study are clear: if we are really going to make an impact on reducing the incidence and burden of invasive breast cancer, we must do a better job of finding these high grade DCIS lesions by using MRI routinely in the screening of all women for breast cancer.


But the authors were careful to point out that there were some significant cautions that had to be considered before recommending such a significant policy change.


First, they noted that their study was done in an institution by highly trained breast imaging radiology specialists with years of experience who had access to the best equipment.  This is not representative of the circumstances in most parts of the United States or the world.


In their words, “For the time being, few radiologists can offer a level of expertise for MRI that comes close to that required for diagnostic mammography…  Additionally, there are currently no standards that would define appropriate technical requirements for breast MRI.  Therefore our results are unlikely to be reproducible in a community breast imaging service at present.  (Emphasis mine)


The authors go on to recommend that a large clinical trial is necessary to further investigate whether or not MRI can indeed find more high-grade DCIS lesions compared to regular mammography, and whether that translates into a better outlook for women with breast cancer.


In the editorial published with this paper, another breast-imaging researcher reaffirmed the importance of the results of this trial.


“It is widely believed that mammography is more sensitive in detecting DCIS than is MRI.  However, Kuhl found that the sensitivity of MRI for DCIS is much higher than that of mammography, especially for high-grade lesions, which are thought to be more prone to progress to invasive carcinomas,” wrote the editorialist.


The authors also noted that the ability of MRI to predict whether a suspicious lesion seen on a study was cancer (called the positive predictive value) was very similar to that of mammography, while the ability of MRI to pick up the high-grade DCIS lesions was much greater.


In other words, in contrast to current thinking which suggests that MRI leads to many more biopsies that turn out to be benign compared to mammography, by changing the criteria for biopsy the predictive value of both studies is almost the same.


The editorial concluded, “MRI should thus no longer be regarded as an adjunct to mammography but as a distinct method to detect breast cancer in its earliest stage.  A large multicentre breast-screening trial with MRI in the general population is essential.”


Before you go to your doctor and demand a screening MRI (which neither the article nor the editorial would support for the reasons noted), you should know that other experts have some qualms about this study.


Debbie Saslow, PhD, who is the American Cancer Society’s director of breast and gynecologic cancer, has a number of thoughts that are worth noting.


Among them is the fact that we already know that MRI is better at detecting DCIS in screening high risk women and follow-up of women with abnormal mammograms or abnormal clinical findings.


The study only looked at 29 women who were at average risk, according to Dr. Saslow.  Those are the women who represent the overwhelming number of those who have screening mammograms.  Therefore, it is difficult to extrapolate these findings to the large number of women who receive screening mammograms.


One other consideration discussed by Dr. Saslow was the reality that we have to consider not only limited availability of qualified centers and radiologists who are able to perform and interpret MRI breast screening studies, but we also have to be concerned about costs. 


The reality is that an MRI cost is about 10 times that of a mammogram.  Multiply that by millions of women, and the costs become prohibitive.


Dr. Saslow concludes that for an average risk woman, the harms of MRI outweigh the risks, and there have been no studies which have assessed MRI screening of women who were not at high risk.


As I mentioned, there is certain to be discussion and controversy over this study.


As is frequently the case, other experts will weigh in on the issue.  It is even possible that perhaps a larger scale study will be done to look more closely at the question of whether MRI breast cancer screening is more effective in finding early cancers, and can reduce treatment costs and side effects as well as increase survival from breast cancer. 


For now, this remains simply a report of an interesting clinical trial. 


There is much yet to be learned about the use of MRI in routine breast cancer screening.  This is not something that is ready for implementation today.   We need larger trials and experience with this approach. 


Much more needs to be done, including improved certification of centers and radiologists who offer this service.


On those points, all of the experts agree.


J. Leonard Lichtenfeld's Biography

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP: Dr. Lichtenfeld currently serves as Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Cancer Society in the Society's Office of the Chief Medical Officer located at the Society's Corporate Center in Atlanta. Dr. Lichtenfeld joined the Society in 2001 as a medical editor, and in 2002 assumed responsibility for managing the Society's then newly created Cancer Control Science Department which included the prevention and early detection of cancer, emerging cancer science and trends, health equity, quality of life for cancer patients, the science of cancer communications and the role of nutrition and physical activity in cancer prevention and cancer care.  In 2014, Dr. Lichtenfeld assumed his current role in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer where he provides extensive support to a number of Society colleagues and activities. As a result of his over four decades of experience in cancer care, Dr. Lichtenfeld is frequently quoted in the print and electronic media regarding the Society's positions on a number of important issues related to cancer. He has testified regularly in legislative and regulatory hearings, and participated on numerous panels regarding cancer care, research, advocacy and related topics. He has served on a number of advisory committees and boards for organizations that collaborate with the Society to reduce the burden of cancer nationally and worldwide. He is well known for his blog ( which first appeared in 2005 and which continues to address many topics related to cancer research and treatment. A board certified medical oncologist and internist who was a practicing physician for over 19 years, Dr. Lichtenfeld has long been engaged in health care policy on a local, state, and national level.  He is active in several state and national medical organizations and has a long-standing interest in professional legislative and regulatory issues related to health care including physician payment, medical care delivery systems, and health information technology. Dr. Lichtenfeld is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in Philadelphia.  His postgraduate training was at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore. He is a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national honor medical society.  Dr. Lichtenfeld has received several awards in recognition of his efforts on behalf of his colleagues and his professional activities.  He has been designated a Master of the American College of Physicians in acknowledgement of his contributions to internal medicine.  Dr. Lichtenfeld is married, and resides in Atlanta and Thomasville, Georgia.

8 thoughts on “Should MRIs Be Used To Screen For Breast Cancer?

  1. “the harms of MRI outweigh the risks”

    compared to x-rays? i would have thought that by this criterion, MRI would be *safer* – no ionising radiation. but yes, on cost grounds alone MRI looks like a no-goer at the moment. i’m just trying to imagine the UK NHS picking up the tab for a national MRI-based breast screening programme…

  2. My breast surgeon advised me that, as Dr. Len stated above, breast MRIs really need to be administered and read by someone who specializes in this test, and that many of the local testing centers are not yet up to that challenge. My surgeon stated that one of his patients first went to a local facility for a breast MRI, and the test results were of such poor quality that he advised the woman she needed to have the MRI redone at a major academic institution that had the necessary expertise. She did have the test redone, and none of the problems apparent on the first test occurred on the second. With less than optimal quality breast MRI results, my surgeon said that women are likely to end up undergoing a significant number of unnecessary biopsies. Thus, I would suspect that the “harm” referred to above includes more than just the cost (and radiation levels) of the two tests. It is likely that other harms would include women having to undergo invasive biopsies and all of the accompanying psychological stress and anxiety that such a process brings along with it. I am at an elevated risk for breast cancer due to my endometrial cancer history and because my mother had breast cancer in both breasts. However, my risk is not currently high enough under the ACS’s current guidelines to put me in the category where breast MRI is clearly recommended. Because I have already undergone two breast biopsies since my surgery and radiation for endometrial cancer, I am not overly excited about having my breasts further sampled unnecessarily. At this time, I have chosen to hold off having a breast MRI until the dust settles somewhat on this emerging technology, and my breast surgeon is in agreement with my decision.

  3. Mammograms are recommended yearly past 40 years of age to detect breast cancer. Colonoscopies are also recommended routinely to detect colon cancer. Rather than looking into doing MRIs which only looks at one part of the body and cannot be performed on anyone with a pacemaker, why not do a PET scan that will detect cancer cells in the entire body, including breast and colon cancers? That way, maybe those cancers (i.e. liver, pancreatic) that are usually detected in their late stages might be caught earlier on when patients still have a chance of surviving them. My mom had the routine mammogram and colonsocopy done and both of them missed the cancer that had spread to all of her other organs, originating in the liver. And since she had a pacemaker, she couldn’t have an MRI. So, again… why not just do PET scans and look for ALL cancers with just ONE test? PET scans may be more expensive (around $5,000), but if it can save the life of a loved one, it is worth it.

  4. I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in 2005. I have had a lumpectomy,chemotherapy, radiation and because I was HER2 positive, Herceptin was part of my treatment regimen. I am currently taking daily Tamoxifen. I had no lymph node involvement, no family history of breast ca and tested negative for the BRCA gene. My medical oncologist feels that I would beneift from three modalities: mammography, ultrasound and bilateral MRI in order for me to remain disease free. My insurance company will only pay for the mammography and ultrasound. They denied the MRI because I did not have a mastectomy; do not have a ruptured implant, had no lymph node involvement and am not a high genetic risk. Holy cow!
    I have had breast cancer. Believe me I was there when I heard the dreaded, “You have breast cancer” sentence. I met every treatment with determination and I have triumphed. No insurance company has the right to deny me my life. No patient should have to plead for their life. I understand the utilization review process, intellectually, but emotionally, quite frankly, I do not understand it in relation to MY LIFE and remaining cancer free.

  5. A couple of comments… I am in the middle of radiation treatments for my Stage 1 breast cancer removed via Lumpectomy earlier this summer, with no lymph node involvement. They are not recommending chemo, but hormone therapy after radiation. I am against using Tamoxifen because of my family history of heart disease, stroke, blood clots and lung cancer! So I’m considering alternative medicine. I’m still trying to get over my aggravation with the medical profession because no none found my cancer, I did. It is about 3 inches below my collar bone, tucked between a chest rib where I thought it was just a lymph node until it started to grow. No mamogram or clinical breast exam went that high on my chest wall. So lesson learned there! About the MRI and insurance not covering it! At least you have insurance that will cover part of the tests! If I want an MRI that I consider life saving, I will come up with the money! I can’t imagine the poor people who have NO insurance. They are just turned away from treatment all together. I consider myself one of the fortunate ones!

  6. I had DCIS five years ago. One breast had so many deposits that the doctor said a mastectomy was required. I chose to have both breasts removed. The day after the surgery the breast cancer surgeon told me I never had to see him again as all the breast tissue had been removed. I am, thankfully, very well. I consider myself so fortunate in having this type of cancer. I needed no chemo, radiation, drugs, etc. I have never been back to the doctor’s office who did this surgery. Was this correct, that I never need worry about this again? Some people have thought I was foolish not to go back for a check-up, but I am fine??

  7. I had a breast bi-opsy today and I have density in both breast and microcalcifications. What are the chance of this being cancerous and if so is it in the early stages. Thank ou Lisa Jackson

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