For the majority of women, a screening mammogram is effective in detecting breast cancer.
However, for women who have dense breasts and an increased risk of breast cancer, adding other diagnostic tests may also help identify cancer that may not be seen on a mammogram.
A new study examined whether adding a yearly ultrasound or a single MRI in addition to a mammogram can benefit women who have an increased risk of breast cancer.
"We still recommend mammograms in every woman who's eligible based on age, but we do know it's limited to women who have dense breast tissue," said Wendi A. Berg, M.D., Ph.D.
Berg, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and co-authors examined more than 2,600 women with an elevated cancer risk and dense breasts. These women underwent three yearly mammogram and ultrasound screenings.
In the third year of the study, just more than 700 women received a single screening MRI. The study appears in this week's JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association.
"The combination of mammography and ultrasound after three years was extremely effective in finding the cancers that needed to be found," Berg said. "We found them before they spread to the lymph nodes."
That's what happened to Lisa Renze, who was previously diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent successful treatment. Because she was now at higher risk, her mother urged her to participate in the study.
A subsequent ultrasound showed shadows in her breast and a biopsy confirmed it was cancer.
"I was devastated, but I was also very thankful that this was available to me because had we not found it when we did, I don't know if I'd be here today," Renze said.
She received treatment again and is now cancer free.
"Adding MRI was even more effective at finding cancer but was probably not necessary for the vast majority of women in our study because we were still able to find cancer before it was a lump just by the combination of ultrasound and mammography in most of our patients," Berg said.
Researchers say undergoing an MRI or ultrasound also carries a higher risk of false positive results, extra follow-up testing and biopsies.
"For each woman, she should weigh the potential benefits from the potential risks of having any extra testing," Berg said.
Bosom Buddies has been teaching women in Jacksonville about the benefits of MRIs for years, helping save lives across the area by informing women about advanced screenings.
"It's a matter of life or death, as far as I'm concerned," said Bobbi de Cordova-Hanks, founder of the nonprofit Bosom Buddies. "I've been doing this work for 23 years, almost 24 years now, and I've seen so many people come in with advanced cancer that could've had a much earlier and much more curable rate if they would've had an MRI."
She said she's always recommended combination screenings.
"I feel blessed because I've been given a new lease on life," Renze said. "To be able to watch my daughter grow up and get married, to grow old with my husband, and to live my life to the fullest."
Researchers also point out that only 58 percent of the study participants who were offered a screening MRI underwent the procedure.
Bosom Buddies believes it's a test high-risk women should always consider.