MRI detected Christina Applegate’s breast cancer. Her diligence may have saved her life.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Christina Applegate, age 36, is a role model for women regarding breast cancer detection. Although details are not available, she apparently caught it at an early stage. Therefore her prospects of full recovery are good. She probably had the lump removed and may have a few rounds of chemotherapy. If not detected early, the prognosis would have be much more dire.

So how did she find it so early? Was it just good luck, or did her regular checkups pay off? From early news reports it was the latter. Here is why I believe that.

  • Her mother had breast cancer so she is at high risk for the gene that increases her own risk.
  • Women at high risk should start screening at an earlier age and consider adding an MRI to the mammogram screening.
  • MRIs are better at detecting cancer in the denser breast tissue found in younger women.

The news reports give credit to the MRI. I also think credit is due to her and her doctor.

What is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine?

It is a machine that creates a strong magnetic field, then shoots radio waves into the patient’s body. This combination sends back signals that are processed through a computer to show internal parts of the body. It is very useful in showing up soft-tissue (non-bone) variations. It is used in many diagnostic areas, including detecting tumor tissue from regular breast tissue.

Why not recommend a screening MRI for every woman?

Two main reasons.

  1. Cost
  2. There are more false positives (MRI interpretation is cancer, but it turns out to not be) than with mammograms. Combine mammogram and MRI and detection is even better, but false positives are even worse.

So, if your risks are not above average, routine MRIs are not recommended.

In the future, that will change. MRIs are getting more accurate results with tweaking and more experience. That comes with time. Actually, new diagnostic tools may be even better in the near future.

The lesson to be learned? Get regular screening. It saves lives.

Have you any experience with breast cancer, false positives or screening tools?

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5 Responses to “MRI detected Christina Applegate’s breast cancer. Her diligence may have saved her life.”

  1. Liz S Says:

    These are interesting recommendations but don’t address the fact that insurance rarely pays for MRI, which is an expensive addition to the standard mammogram. As someone who is at high risk, I know firsthand.

    Liz Ss last blog post..Going Undercover

  2. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    That is true, which is why I noted that cost was a factor in not recommending MRI’s for routine screening. Mammograms are nearly as expensive.

    I would talk to your health care provider about this. Certainly yearly mammograms and professional breast exams should be done, even if you can’t afford the MRI. If that cost is still not feasible, most cities have, at least, one clinic that charges on a sliding-scale related to your salary.

    Thanks for that perspective.

  3. James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor Blog » Blog Archive » October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Says:

    [...] and mammograms over 40 years old, earlier if you have risk factors such as a family history.  Newer, more comfortable and accurate screening tests are in the works. Men, if you have breast redness, swelling, lumps, or nipple discharge, see your health-care [...]

  4. doc Says:

    MRIs are expensive but effective. There was a study of MRI in known breast cancer patients at UCI a few years ago. They found many additional cancers. docs last blog post..Tom Cruise Visits Plastic Surgeon

  5. Mackay mammogram Says:

    An Ultrasound is also very usefull when performed on a pregnant lady so an obstetrician can check on the developing baby. It does this with the help of high-frequency sound waves which have no adverse effect on the body.

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