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Can MRI detect cancer? Yes: Here’s how.

Key takeaways:

  • To answer “can MRI detect cancer,” MRI scans of your brain, spinal cord, spinal nerves, muscles, ligaments, soft tissues, organs, and tendons provide clearer pictures than X-rays and CT scans.
  • Unlike CT and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, MRI scanners do not use ionizing radiation. 
  • Not all tumors are cancerous.
  • Whole-body MRI is used as a general screening tool, as well as for assessing bone metastases from breast and prostate cancer.

Can an MRI detect cancer? The answer is resounding yes and the good news is that you needn’t wait around until a doctor decides you need one. Elective MRI scans and regular, annual full-body screenings are readily available for those who want more control over their health. 

MRI can create pictures of soft tissue in your body and organs that are sometimes hard to see using other imaging tests. MRI is very good at zeroing in on some kinds of cancers. By looking at your body with MRI, doctors may be able to see if a tumor is benign or cancerous.  

According to the WHO, survival rates for many types of cancer are significantly higher with early detection. The chances of survival depend on a few factors: 

  • The kind of cancer
  • Staging (how advanced the cancer is and if it has spread)
  • Your age
  • The timing of your cancer detection; the earlier your cancer is discovered, the easier it is to treat. 

The reason for this is that, with early detection, treatment options may be less complex, the cost of treatment is often lower, and there may be a significant reduction in the time it takes for the patient to get the care they need.  

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an important tool in finding soft-tissue tumors, detecting cancer and staging, and planning and monitoring treatment. 

An MRI can also determine if there are metastases, meaning it can tell whether or not cancer has spread to other parts of your body.

In this article, we’ll discuss how MRI detects tumors and ascertains their nature, the kinds of tumors and cancers that MRI can detect, what early detection can mean for you and what to expect from an MRI.

How an MRI detects benign tumors and cancer.

Let’s explain the answer behind “can MRI detect cancer.” When the technologist pulses a radiofrequency current through your body in the MRI scanner, it stimulates the protons in soft tissues and organs, such as water and fat content at the molecular level.

As a result, the protons move against the magnetic field. When the radiofrequency current ceases, the MRI machine’s sensors detect the energy the protons expended as they came into alignment with the magnetic field.

While the radio waves are pulsing on and off, the pictures they create allow the radiologist and your oncologist to “read” the time it took for the protons to realign and how much energy they released. 

Those differences help determine the molecules’ chemical signature and identify cancerous tumors and masses.

The types of tumors and cancers an MRI can detect

Not all tumors are equal. MRI scans can help us understand what further action should be taken when a tumor is discovered.

Radiologists can review multiple, sequenced cross-section MRI images from many angles: head-on, lateral, and top-to-bottom. Because of the different views, it’s possible to see where the tumor is, how big it is, and how it affects surrounding tissue structures.

Magnetic resonance images can also show if a cancerous tumor has metastasized (spread) from its initial location to other parts of your body. Those images will display any tumors or abnormalities in bone and soft tissue structures.

An abnormal lump or group of cells is called a neoplasm or tumor. A malignant tumor is cancerous — its cells are abnormal and grow uncontrollably.

However, not all tumors are cancer. When the tumor’s cells are normal — not cancerous — doctors call the tumor benign. 

Benign tumors explained.

Benign tumors are not cancerous, are generally harmless, and easy to treat. 

  • Benign tumors don’t move to other parts of your body, nor do they invade nearby tissues.
  • Usually, benign tumors grow slowly or not at all. 
  • These tumors are usually not harmful.

Uterine fibroids and intestinal polyps are typical examples of benign tumors.

Benign tumors don’t invade surrounding tissue or move to other areas of your body. Instead, they may crowd the surrounding tissues or press on nerves or blood vessels. 

These tumors tend to have clear boundaries, and they do not secrete hormones. They also don’t metastasize via the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other parts of your body.

If pressure from a benign tumor causes damage or impairment to nearby tissue structures, it may need to be removed.

Once removed, a benign tumor doesn’t usually return. However, if it does return, it ordinarily recurs in the same place. 

Malignant tumors explained.

When a tumor is malignant, it means the tumor’s cells are cancerous. They look and behave differently from normal cells.

A malignant tumor’s edges are often spiculated, which means that the surface of the tumor is spiky or has sharp-edged “fingers.” These sharp edges create an irregularly-shaped mass that invades nearby tissues. 

Cancer cells metastasize. Again, this means that they move into the bloodstream or travel via the lymphatic system to other sites in your body. Once cancer cells reach another location, a malignant tumor will form there.

Benign and malignant tumors are generally visible on an MRI. There are a few exceptions to what can be seen, such as growth rates, but the differences between them are typically consistent.

Can MRI detect cancer?

Can MRI detect cancer: Middle aged man smiling and looking straight ahead

MRI scans can help medical professionals detect cancer. And whole-body magnetic resonance imaging (WB-MRI) has become available to the general public for cancer screening.

If you find out early that you have a tumor or cancer, you can start treatment earlier, giving you a head start and improving your prognosis. This way, you also avoid more costly cancer treatment.

Oncologists use whole-body MRI more and more often to manage treatment for patients whose cancer is likely to metastasize to bone marrow, such as prostate and breast cancers. Oncologists and radiologists also use WB-MRI in lymphoma follow-up because of its superior diagnostics compared to positron emission tomography. 

As an imaging tool, WB-MRI minimizes ionizing radiation exposure.

What you can expect from an MRI.

After learning that MRI can detect cancer, many people choose to self-refer for MRI scanning as a measure of prevention and control over their health care. Thinking about the possibility of having cancer is terrifying, but scheduling a full-body scan can help set your mind at ease. 

Your doctor may also refer you for an MRI scan. However, you’ll schedule your MRI at the radiology department in a hospital or an outpatient imaging center. 

Typically, a certified radiology technologist conducts your MRI. A radiologist or clinician will review the images and write a report for you or your doctor.

The technologist will offer earplugs — MRI machines are noisy — or headphones and help you onto the table for your scan. (Ezra will play your favorite Spotify playlists to help you relax.) Depending on whether contrast is used, you can expect your scan to take as much as an hour, but often less.

If you have claustrophobia, you can ask for you can ask your primary care physician for medication. This helps make the experience less intimidating.

At Ezra, our full-body scans do not use contrast, and your screening — which looks for cancer in up to 13 organs — will take less than an hour.

Don’t expect instant results: It can take a few days to review the MRI scan and write the report.

MRI risk factors you can control.

If you have any implants, medical devices, or any other permanent metal objects in your body, you should speak to your clinician before scheduling an MRI. 

Make sure this person and the technician know if you have:

  • Implanted defibrillator/pacemaker
  • Brain aneurysm clips
  • Cochlear implant
  • Metal coils inside your blood vessels
  • Artificial heart valves
  • Artificial joints
  • Metal fragments (shrapnel)
  • Implanted infusion ports or nerve stimulators
  • Staples
  • Surgical clips
  • Screws or plates
  • Stents
  • Tattoos or permanent makeup

If your doctor, radiologist, or technologist clears you anyway, you can proceed with MRI scanning. 

Use an MRI for early detection and better diagnosis.

If you’ve wondered, “Can MRI detect cancer?” not only can it detect cancer, but scanning proactively can give you an edge over cancer, should it be found.

More than ever, health care professionals use MRI imaging tests to diagnose, treat, and follow-up on cancer’s progress.

MRI scans are useful tools for screening many tissues and organs, including the breast, brain, prostate, and spinal cord. 

The detailed pictures an MRI produces are more precise and more accurate images than X-rays and CT scans make. 

You might be relieved to hear there’s no risk of radiation because an MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to create the images. And also important to note is that even if the MRI turns up evidence of a tumor, don’t worry. Not all tumors are cancerous. 

If you’re worried about your risk of cancer, you can take our quick, five-minute quiz. We’ll ask you several questions about your lifestyle, medical, and family history to calculate your cancer risk score.

Taking control of your health is easy with Ezra’s annual full-body screening. Reach out today to book your screening online.