Mammograms Versus M.R.I. to Detect Early Stage Breast Cancer

We've been hearing for years about the importance of mammography in detecting breast cancer. But now a growing number of doctors say there may be a better way to detect the disease in its early stages, and possibly save lives. Channel 7's Dr. Ed Dominguez explains in our Med Team report.

dr. Elsie levin/breast cancer specialist

dr. Ted tsangaris/breast cancer specialist

"This was an absolute shock to just all of us." "Jane" had no history of breast cancer in her family, but was diligent about getting her yearly mammogram. She didn't want to be identified because she hasn't told many people about her ordeal. "They found in the mammogram that I had these five small dots, which they called calcifications."

No visible sign of cancer. Yet, Jane's doctor was suspicious and decided to do a biopsy. Dr. Elsie Levin is a breast cancer specialist. "Just about every piece of tissue I removed had invasive cancer on it."

The diagnosis: invasive lobular cancer...almost impossible to detect on a mammogram.

In order to find out where the cancer originated...Dr. Levin decided to have Jane undergo an MRI. "I felt that an MRI was very important because I had no idea how much cancer was really in her breast."

Dr. Levin is not alone. Many doctors see MRI emerging as a promising tool for diagnosing early stages of breast cancer. "In certain circumstances, MRI can add additional information that is very useful."

Those circumstances include: women with a genetic predisposition to the disease.... Women who have been newly diagnosed with breast cancer... And women with dense breast tissue.

Dr. Susan Orel is an MRI specialist. "MRI can really help guide the surgical approach." Dr. Orel has been studying the use of MRI to detect breast cancer for more than a decade. Her latest research shows MRI's often change the recommended course of treatment.

In "Jane's" case, she underwent a mastectomy-instead of a lumpectomy. "The MRI gave me the full picture and I was able to make an educated decision." Another finding in Dr. Orel's research: MRIs are now so sensitive-they can visualize invasive cancers close to one hundred percent of the time. "It gives us information that we may not be able to get with mammography or ultrasound."

Dr. Ted Tsangaris heads up the breast center at Johns Hopkins University. While he agrees there are times when MRI is useful... He says it can also lead to unnecessary procedures. "It tends to find lots of things in the breast which opens up a whole can of worms, and then we're scrambling to rule out various things."

Dr. Tsangaris also points out the huge difference in price.. The average mammogram costs between $150 and $200. An MRI can run you anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000. "When you're talking about a great low-cost screening tool, mammography is really hard to beat."

Still, "Jane" says she's cancer-free thanks to the MRI. "It really saved my life."

Right now, insurance companies will pay for an MRI, provided it's used to help stage a breast cancer case. They typically won't pay for MRIs when women are not considered high-risk. The American Cancer Society has had no comment on the MRI issue. Likewise for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which defends mammography but has no position on MRI.