Compared to mammography and ultrasound, breast MRI is a completely different way of looking at the breast. It is an advanced tool using MRI technology, sophisticated computers, and 3-D techniques that look deeply into the breast to discover abnormalities that might not be visible in other exams.
About breast MRIs
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a safe and painless test that provides pictures of organs, soft tissue, bone, and virtually all other internal body structures.
- Breast MRIs offer imaging in certain cases that are more thorough than mammography.
- MRIs use a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to create images of the body.
What is a breast MRI?
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a safe and painless test that provides pictures of organs and structures inside the body. It produces these images by using a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy. MRI does not use X-rays.
Who should get an annual screening breast MRI?
- Women who have a BRCA gene mutation or have a first-degree relative (mother, sister, daughter) with a BRCA mutation
- Women who received radiation treatment to the chest between the ages 10 and 30
- Women who have a rare medical condition linked to breast cancer, Li-Fraumeni, Cowdon, or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndromes, or have a first-degree relative with one of these syndromes
- Women with a 20-25% or greater lifetime risk of developing breast cancer
Other reasons for getting a breast MRI include: current breast cancer diagnosis, prior to breast cancer surgery, and to detect a breast implant leak.
Do I still need to have a yearly mammogram if I get a breast MRI?
Absolutely. A breast MRI should not take the place of your annual mammogram. If you are at high-risk, you should have an annual breast MRI in addition to your annual mammogram.
What can a breast MRI scan tell my doctor?
For women with a high risk of breast cancer – both survivors and those who have a strong family history or genetic predisposition - breast MRI can be an important tool for detecting and staging cancer and other abnormalities.
While mammography is still considered the most effective screening tool for breast cancer in most women, MRI of the breast can offer valuable information such as size, extent and location of cancers.
It can also evaluate:
- Early breast cancer in women with dense breast tissue.
- The extent of cancer after a new diagnosis of breast cancer.
- Hard to assess abnormalities.
- Lumpectomy sites in the years following breast cancer treatment. Scarring and recurrent cancer can look identical on mammography and ultrasound.
- Breast implants to determine if they have ruptured.
- How well chemotherapy is working.
How do I prepare for my exam?
You may be asked to wear a gown during the exam or you may be allowed to wear your own clothing if it is loose-fitting and has no metal fasteners.
Guidelines about eating and drinking before an MRI exam vary. Most patients receiving a breast MRI examinations will be required to swallow contrast material or receive an injection of contrast into the bloodstream.
Women should always inform their physician or technologist if there is any possibility that they are pregnant. If you have claustrophobia or anxiety, you may want to talk to your doctor for a prescription for a mild sedative to take before the scan.
Jewelry and other accessories should not be worn for the test because they can interfere with the magnetic field.
It is also important for us to know if you have any metal in your body before your MRI scan is performed. The MRI uses a very strong magnet that may create movement of certain metal objects in your body.
In most cases, an MRI exam is safe for patients for metal implants, except for a few types.
People with the following implants cannot be scanned and should not enter an MRI scanning area unless explicitly instructed to do so by a radiologist or technologist who is aware of the presence of any of the following:
- Pacemaker or Automatic Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (AICD)
- Some types of metal coils placed within blood vessels.
- Any implanted mechanical or electrical device (i.e. cochlear or stapes ear implant, magnetic dentures, spinal stimulator, etc.)
- Some types of brain aneurysm clips
Knowing the make and model of the implanted device is helpful.
How is the test performed?
During the procedure, a patient lies on her stomach on a platform that is specially designed for the procedure. The platform has openings to accommodate breasts and allow them to be imaged without compression. The MRI system is able to achieve multiple views without any re-orientation of the breasts, unlike mammography.
Patients will be asked to remain still throughout the exam. Be sure to let the technologist know if something is uncomfortable, since discomfort increases the chance that you will feel the need to move during the exam.
Patients who receive an MRI for the sole purpose of determining if an implant has ruptured will not be given contrast material. If the exam is being performed for any other reason, contrast material will be used. To identify breast cancers, for example, contrast material is necessary.
The imaging session lasts between 30 minutes and one hour.
Are there any risks?
The MRI examination poses almost no risk to the average patient. Although the strong magnetic field is not harmful in itself, implanted medical devices that contain metal may malfunction or cause problems during an MRI exam.
There is a very slight risk of an allergic reaction if contrast material is injected.
How will I find out the results?
A radiologist will analyze the images and send a report to your primary care or referring physician, who will share the results with you. A biopsy is needed to confirm the results of a breast MRI because an MRI can't distinguish between a cancerous and noncancerous breast growth.