Characteristics Shown by MRI May Help Predict Whether Cancer Cells Are in Lymph Nodes

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A study suggests that certain breast cancer characteristics shown by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may help predict whether there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes when the cancer is first diagnosed.

The results were presented at the 2008 American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology (ASTRO) meeting.

Whether or not there are cancer cells in the lymph nodes is an important factor doctors consider when deciding if chemotherapy or radiation therapy should be given AFTER surgery to lower the risk of the cancer coming back. When breast cancer is first diagnosed, doctors often don't know if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. The nodes are examined during surgery to see if any cancer cells are present.

Chemotherapy often is given before surgery to:

  • weaken the cancer
  • lower the need for lymph node removal
  • minimize the extent of surgery

Chemotherapy before surgery can kill all the cancer cells in the lymph nodes -- so lymph nodes that were "positive" for cancer become "negative" by the time of surgery. If this happens, doctors may decide on a treatment plan based on negative lymph nodes, which may not be accurate.

A good way to predict whether breast cancer cells are in nearby lymph nodes before any treatment starts could help make sure that women who would benefit from radiation therapy and chemotherapy after surgery get those treatments.

This small study looked at whether dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI could help determine whether cancer cells were present in nearby lymph nodes before any treatments began. While the results are promising, the study is very small and much more research is needed before dynamic contrast-enhanced MRI is used routinely to assess lymph node status.

Visit the Breastcancer.org Screening and Testing section to learn more about MRI and other techniques to screen for and diagnose breast cancer.

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