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False Positive MRI Results Not a Positive Experience

Focused on Health - October 2008

An MRI has more sensitivity than a mammogram,
but is more likely to lead to a false positive.

When Ho Chen Carius, R.N., made her annual appointment for a mammogram last January, she wasn’t expecting that the results would be anything but normal. That’s why she was surprised when the test picked up on what appeared to be an abnormal spot in her left breast.

“Although I don’t have a history of breast cancer in my family, I was concerned,” Ho Chen said. “As a nurse, I understand the importance of taking advantage of screening exams that can keep you healthy and potentially find disease in early stages.”

Suspicious Spot Leads to Breast MRI

After the mammogram, her doctor ordered her to have a breast MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), a type of technology that uses a magnetic field, radio waves and computer technology to capture images of the breast.

“Compared to having a mammogram, MRI has increased sensitivity, meaning that it is less likely than a mammogram to miss a cancerous tumor,” said Therese Bevers, M.D., associate professor in Clinical Cancer Prevention at M. D. Anderson.

In a recent study, results showed that when certain women at increased for breast cancer had both a mammogram and an MRI there was a better chance of detecting cancer in its earliest stages when it’s easiest to treat. But because the chances of getting a false positive also are high, many healthy women are faced with unnecessary worry and stress.

This scenario is one that is all too familiar to Ho Chen. After several rounds of MRI testing, some results showed a suspicious spot and some returned normal leaving Ho Chen to wonder if she had cancer.

That’s when Ho Chen decided to take her health into her own hands, and she came to M. D. Anderson for a second opinion.

Test Results Confirm False Positive

After two additional MRI’s, M. D. Anderson doctors confirmed that the spot in question was benign (noncancerous) and recommended continued monitoring and follow up to ensure that the lesion did not turn cancerous.

“An MRI picks up many things, and many of these things tend to be nothing,” Bevers said. “Any woman who has ever had a false positive understands the stress that goes with it, so we have to carefully balance this increased sensitivity with the possibility of a false positive.”

MRI And Mammogram Recommended For Certain Women

M. D. Anderson experts recommend an MRI and mammogram for women who have one of the following:

  • Genetic test results showing a gene mutation: BRCA 1 or 2, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Cowden syndrome or Bannayan-Riley-Ruvalcaba syndrome
  • First-degree relative (parent, child, sibling) with one of the above mutations (if the woman has not yet been tested)
  • Lifetime breast cancer risk of 20 to 25% or greater on an accepted risk assessment tool predominantly based on family history
  • History of radiation therapy to the chest (between the ages of 10 and 30)

Mammogram Recommended for Most Women

At this time, it is unknown whether an MRI is beneficial for women who do not meet any of the above criteria. For most women, M. D. Anderson recommends the following breast cancer screening guidelines:

  • All women should be familiar with their breasts so that they will notice any changes and report them to their doctor without delay
  • Age 20–39, clinical breast exam (an examination of your breasts by your doctor) every one to three years
  • Age 40 and older, yearly mammograms and clinical breast exams, continuing for as long as a woman is in good health

Screening Exams Can Save Lives

“Thankfully, my tests results showed a false positive and not cancer, but I experienced a great deal of stress and worry before I knew my results,” Ho Chen said. “I will continue to get checked annually and encourage my friends and family members to do the same because taking advantage of screening exams could save your own life or a loved one’s life.”

Know Your Breast Cancer Risk

Women should speak with their health care provider to determine if they are at high risk of developing breast cancer and if an MRI scan would be appropriate. A woman’s health care provider can help her determine what screening tests are appropriate. Women also should check with their health insurance company to see if the cost of a screening MRI is covered.

Learn more about whether a breast MRI is right for you by viewing our multimedia resource box on the right-hand side of this page.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center