Screenings are an important tool for catching breast cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat.

While mammograms are widely considered the standard imaging method for breast cancer screening, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is also used in high-risk patients. Mammograms use x-ray radiation to penetrate the breast tissue and capture differences in tissue density while the breast tissue is compressed. MRI, on the other hand, uses magnetic and radio waves to create detailed, cross-sectional images of the tissue.

On its own, mammography has been shown to generate a considerable reduction in deaths caused by breast cancer. Yet, 20 to 30% of breast cancer tumors are missed during mammograms, which unfortunately means they may be larger and more lethal when detected, according to Oregon State University’s Veronica Irvin, Ph.D., M.P.H. Due to the enhanced detail achieved through MRIs, the American Cancer Society recommends both a mammogram and a breast MRI for women at a high risk for breast cancer.

Because breast MRIs can result in false positives and are costly, they are not recommended for women at a low risk. These false positives are due to the fact that an MRI can enhance lesions regardless of whether they’re cancerous or benign, without much differentiation in their characteristics. When an area of concern is identified, the patient must undergo further testing, including additional imaging and often a biopsy.

Nonetheless, the American Cancer Society’s recommendations leave a grey area for women who are at an intermediate risk for breast cancer: While these patients would likely benefit from an earlier diagnosis, most health insurance companies will only cover breast MRIs if it can be proven that a woman is at a high risk.

The Ideal Candidate for Abbreviated Breast MRI

There are various methods for assessing breast cancer risk, including screening for BRCA1 or BRCA2 inherited gene mutations and using the National Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool. Patients who have a prior history of breast cancer, certain conditions, or moderate-risk gene mutations are among those considered to be at an intermediate risk. For those patients, a breast MRI in addition to a mammogram may be beneficial, but without insurance coverage, the imaging can be cost-prohibitive.

Abbreviated Breast MRI is an affordable yet effective alternative to a full breast MRI for intermediate-risk women. According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), this screening takes less time to perform and interpret, but evidence suggests the images are satisfactorily accurate. Research shows that the Abbreviated Breast MRI can be completed in as little as three minutes, compared to the average of 17 minutes required for the full protocol.

Additionally, women with dense breasts can use this exam in conjunction with a screening mammogram. Breast tissue is considered dense if there is a lot of fibrous or glandular tissue and not much fat. Fibrous and glandular tissue looks white on a mammogram, as does a possible tumor. This makes it difficult to tell the difference between a tumor and dense breast tissue on a standard mammogram.

The abbreviated breast MRI exam is helpful in these cases as it finds 200-300% more breast cancers than mammography alone in patients with the described risk factors.

Cardinal Points Imaging proudly offers imaging options for patients of all risk levels, including the Abbreviated Breast MRI for intermediate-risk women. Find out more about our women’s imaging options or schedule an appointment online or by calling (919) 877-5400.