For many years, we’ve been told that women with an average risk of breast cancer should get annual mammograms starting at around 45 – perhaps even younger. But what about breast MRIs? What is the difference between mammograms and breast MRIs, and do you need both? We’ll answer all that, and more!

A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray specifically designed to look only at breast tissue, while an MRI uses radio waves and strong magnets to make detailed, cross-sectional pictures inside the breast. An MRI will take pictures from many angles, which means it will take longer than a mammogram (approximately 25-30 minutes).

Although an MRI can find some cancers not seen on a mammogram, it’s also more likely to find things that turn out not to be cancer (false positives). Because of this, MRIs are not recommended as a screening test for women at average risk of breast cancer.

However, women at higher risk for breast cancer, such as those with a genetic predisposition and/or strong family history of breast cancer, may be recommended by their physicians to have a screening breast MRI along with a yearly mammogram. For best results, those screenings are usually spaced out six months apart for the greatest chance of early detection.

A breast MRI may also be done if breast cancer is suspected based on other exams or symptoms, and if a mammogram or breast ultrasound does not provide clear identification.

What to Expect When Getting a Breast MRI

A breast MRI will need to be performed at a certain time during your cycle if you are still menstruating (day 8-14, with the start of your period counting as day 1).

Before the test, a contrast material called gadolinium is injected into a vein in the arm, which helps show any abnormal areas of breast tissues. You will be asked to remove any metal objects, such as hair clips, jewelry and zippered clothes, and will put on a medical gown.

The test requires you to lie face down on a flat table, with your breasts facing down into an opening so that they can be scanned without being compressed. The table will then move through the MRI tube while images are being taken, and you can expect to hear thumping, clicking, and whirring noises (don’t worry, most facilities will give you headphones to help block out the noise.)

If you have a fear of enclosed spaces, ask your physician about receiving calming medicine prior to the procedure.

Why You Should Get a Mammogram and Breast MRI

It’s common for breast cancer to be missed during mammograms but to be seen on breast MRIs. Occasionally, breast cancer cannot be seen on breast MRIs, but will show up on a mammogram. For this reason, breast MRIs and mammograms are considered to be complementary tests.

Mammograms, MRIs, and breast ultrasounds are all great tools for detecting cancer early, alongside regular self-checks. If you are at a high risk of breast cancer, then ask your physician what screening plan makes sense for you.

For more information on how often you should get a mammogram, read our article How Often Should I Get a Mammogram?.

One Response

  1. My oncologist has ordered yearly mammogram and MRI ( 6 mos apart). Since I still have a breast with dense tissue, I feel good about doing this.

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