Reporter: Shannon Samson
Magnetic resonance imaging or an MRI is usually used to locate unseen problems dealing with the head, neck, spine and extremities.
Now, add the detection of breast cancer to that list. New computer software is making it possible. MRI's could have been used to scan breast tissue in the past, but it simply wasn't practical. The test produced hundreds upon hundreds of images that radiologists just didn't have the time to interpret.
But now, something called CAD, or computer-aided detection, is serving as a second, more efficient set of eyes. When it comes to detecting breast cancer, mammography has long been the gold standard, along with physical examination and ultrasound technology.
But there are limitations. Dr. Doron Finn says, "The mammogram and the physical examination together will pick up most breast cancers. Individually, they both miss 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers."
Magnetic resonance imaging is improving those odds. This new equipment allows a patient to lie on her stomach with her breasts suspended in the depressions on the scanning table. A technician injects dye into her arm which essentially stains cancer cells.
Computer-assisted detection software not only interprets what the breasts look like, but how they behave. Dr. Finn says, "The mammogram shows us a picture of what the breast looks like. It shows areas that are suspicious. We may see a mass effect. We may see calcifications, but the MRI actually shows us a picture of the breast and we can see an abnormality in the breast that is very distinct and we can tell how advanced it is, how large it is."
Not just in pictures, but in graphs too. Because the test is expensive, it's not for everyone. Doctors are using it for patients with questionable mammogram results, those with extremely dense breasts, a strong family history of breast cancer or what's called ductal carcinoma in situ, cancer that's confined to the milk ducts.
Breast cancer, if caught early, is far from a death sentence these days. Dr. Finn says, "Our survival rates are improving. Our treatment has improved dramatically and things are getting better every year."
Patients who have prosthetic joints, pacemakers or other metal implants can't get an MRI because of the powerful magnet that's used.
Interestlingly, there's metal in tatoo ink, so someone with a lot of tattoos couldn't have an MRI either, especially if there's a lot of red ink in them.
Patients with breast implants can still an MRI, not only to detect breast cancer, but it also detects implant rupture.