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Mammography Not Always Enough

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

July 26, 2001 -- Women with a strong family history of breast cancer need frequent, careful monitoring to stay on top of early signs of the disease. Mammography has traditionally played a large role in this process, but it may be taking a backseat to newer, better technology.

A new study in the July 18 issue of Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests an imaging technology called MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, may better detect cancers on yearly breast exams than traditional mammography. MRI is not routinely used to screen for breast cancer, but several large studies, including one ongoing at the University of Pennsylvania, are researching its use for this purpose.

In the newest study, mammography and MRI were compared in a group of women with a strong family history of breast cancer. The majority of the 179 women were under age 50.

According to study author Mark J. Stoutjesdijk, MD, MRI detected 13 cancers, seven of which had not been seen on mammography. This may be because breast tissue is thicker in younger women, making mammography less able to detect tiny changes. MRI, on the other hand, can better penetrate the tissue to find tiny abnormalities, many of which are in the very early stages. MRI also can clarify a questionable mammogram.

One advantage MRI has over mammography is that MRI creates a three-dimensional image of the breast without using radiation. Although the amount of radiation women are exposed to during mammography is small, some experts are concerned that women at high risk of breast cancer may be at high risk of genetic damage induced by even small doses of radiation -- therefore, possibly increasing their risk of breast cancer a little more.

Stoutjesdijk, of the University Medical Center St. Radboud in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, says if MRI is better than mammography at detecting early changes, it could have important implications for women with a family history of early, aggressive, breast cancer. These women might otherwise choose to have their breasts removed -- a procedure known as prophylactic mastectomy -- rather than take the chance of cancer being missed on mammography.

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