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In The News

Carrie Morrison, MD, St. Luke's Hospital

How to detect breast cancer early

There's no question early detection of breast cancer is the key to saving lives. Many women, however, aren't sure when they need to start screening for it and which methods are right for them.

Mammograms have been the gold standard in breast cancer screening for decades. A mammogram is simply an X-ray of the breast. Women today have an additional option - a breast MRI. MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging, and unlike a mammogram, it does not involve radiation. Instead, it uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce a detailed picture of the breast.

MRI scans are more sensitive than mammograms, meaning they can help identify breast cancers that mammograms may miss. On the other hand, a breast MRI is more likely to detect spots that are not cancerous, which can result in unneeded biopsies and other tests. Mostly for this reason, MRI scans are not recommended for women with only an average risk of developing breast cancer.

The decision to start screening for breast cancer at a certain age should be made by a patient and her physician based on her risk factors. The risk of developing breast cancer is higher for women who have mutations of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene; have a mother, sister or daughter who has or had breast cancer; or previously had breast cancer themselves.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that the majority of women at high risk of developing breast cancer get both an MRI scan of the breast and a mammogram each year starting between the ages of 25 and 30. It's important to note that an MRI should supplement - not replace - a mammogram. An MRI scan may miss a cancer that a mammogram would detect.

The ACS recommends that women at moderately increased risk talk with their doctors about the benefits and limitations of an annual MRI screening in addition to a mammogram. Women at average risk of developing breast cancer should have yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and clinical breast exams in their 20's and 30's.

Carrie Morrison, MD, is the director of breast imaging and mammography at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-205-6100 or visit her Physician Referral page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 26, 2009.

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St. Luke's Hospital - 232 South Woods Mill Road - Chesterfield, MO 63017 Main Number: 314-434-1500 Emergency Dept: 314-205-6990 Patient Billing: 888-924-9200
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