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Mammography vs. Breast MRI for Breast Cancer Detection

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Many of our readers have asked us the question: “What’s the difference between getting a breast MRI versus a regular mammogram using a mammography machine?” This is a great question, the answer to which highlights the separate strengths of these modalities.

Each machine has its advantages and disadvantages that result in one being more suitable for general screening (mammography) and the other more suitable for diagnosis and staging (MRI).

Breast Cancer Detection Methods


Mammography is the recommended method of screening/diagnosis for most patients. Mammography is generally more reliable than MRI when detecting suspicious calcifications and remains the best modality for patients with ferrous metal implants that are unable to go through an MRI. Patients with a personal or family history of breast cancer or dense breasts could arguably benefit more from an MRI study but, with 3D Tomo technology hitting the market, image quality and calcification/lesion recognition have recently improved for mammography.  

Breast MRI

During an MRI procedure, unlike mammography, there is no risk of radiation exposure because MRIs use magnetic fields to create images. According to recent studies, one distinct advantage of MRI studies is their ability to better detect small breast lesions that are sometimes missed on a mammography machine. MRIs are also more effective in detecting breast cancer in patients with dense breasts and patients with breast implants.

One disadvantage of MRI studies is that they have been known to miss calcifications, which can sometimes develop into tumors. Additionally, because of the magnetic field generated by an MRI, patients with ferrous implants of any kind are disqualified from being screened on this equipment. Finally, MRI procedures require an expensive and more invasive injection of contrast dye into the arm that helps create a clearer image, but unfortunately is not always covered by insurance. 

A Place for Everything

In most cases, a physician will elect to start a patient out with a regular mammogram. If suspicious or inconclusive results are found (along with a history), they may elect to order a more expensive breast MRI as well. Balancing what is best for the patient with cost management certainly factors into a physician’s decision, but the bottom line remains the same: leveraging the separate strengths of both MRI and mammography to detect breast cancer earlier and save lives.

If you'd like to know more about mammography or MRI equipment, our team is ready to help. Use the button below to tell us your needs and start the conversation.

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