Screening high-risk women using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) plus mammography can detect breast cancer at an early stage, according to a study presented at the CTRC-AACR San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

The study, led by Ellen Warner, MD, MSc, medical oncologist in the Department of Medicine, Division of Medical Oncology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, in Toronto, Canada, and a team of researchers followed 1,275 women at high-risk for breast cancer to determine which screening method detected cancer at a significantly earlier stage.

“Early stage breast cancers are more likely to be curable” said Dr Warner. “We can be fairly confident that if screening with MRI finds cancers at a much earlier stage, it probably also saves lives.”

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One group of women was screened with MRI plus mammography and the control group received conventional screening by mammography. All of the women had the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, which the authors said suggested a very high lifetime risk of developing breast cancer.

Researchers found that 41 cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in the MRI group, whereas 76 cases of breast cancer were diagnosed in the control group. Moreover, there were proportionately fewer advanced breast cancers, and more early cancers among women who screening with MRI compared with those not screened with MRI.

Also reported was a smaller cancer size in the MRI group, with 3% of cancers in the MRI group larger than 2 cm in diameter compared with 29% of those in the control group.

“These results will hopefully convince high-risk women and their health care providers that breast screening with yearly MRI and mammography is a reasonable alternative to surgical removal of their breast, which is commonly done to prevent breast cancer,” Dr Warner said.