Authored by Revere Health

MRI for Cancer Detection: What to Expect

December 5, 2017 | ImagingRadiology

Doctors use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect cancer, look for signs that cancer has spread elsewhere in the body and plan cancer treatment. MRI is painless and simple. Here’s what you can expect.

MRI 101

MRI creates cross-sectional images of the inside of your body using strong magnets instead of radiation found in X-ray imaging and other similar tests. MRI is a tool used to find and locate certain cancers. For example, doctors can identify brain and spinal cord tumors using MRI with contrast dye, and they can often determine whether or not a tumor is cancerous.


In most cases, MRI can be performed on an outpatient basis, which means you are not required to be in a hospital. Some notes on preparation include:

  • You don’t typically have to follow a special diet or any other specific instructions, but do follow these carefully if they’re given.
  • If you have claustrophobia, or experience discomfort in small, enclosed spaces, you may need medication to relax inside the MRI machine. Speak with your technologist or doctor beforehand about this. It’s also possible to arrange for open MRI, which allows more space around the body.
  • In some cases, technologists use a contrast material called gadolinium—this is different from the substance used in CT scans. You may have to swallow the contrast material, but it can also be injected intravenously. Inform your doctor or technologist if you’ve had allergic reactions to contrast dyes.
  • If you have implants such as a defibrillator or pacemaker, clips for a brain aneurysm, an ear implant or metal coils inside the blood vessels, you should not enter an MRI scanning area unless told to do so by a radiologist who knows of your implant.
  • Be sure your technologist knows about all other permanent metal objects in or on your body

    During the Test

    If you have not experienced an MRI test before, the process can seem unnerving. In reality, the test is simple and painless. Here’s what you can expect:

    • You may be asked to undress and put on a gown or other clothing without zippers or any metal. Be sure to remove all metal.
    • You’ll lie down on a narrow, flat table. Straps or pillows may be used to help keep you comfortable and to stop you from moving.
    • The table will slide into a long, narrow cylinder. The part of your body being scanned will be in the middle of the cylinder. This part of the body may feel warm during the test, but this is normal.
    • You’ll be alone in the exam room, but you’ll be able to talk to the technologist, who can see and hear you constantly.
    • The test is painless, though the cylinder surface will be very close to your face and you may feel some discomfort. You may be asked to hold your breath for certain parts of the test, and you’ll be told to lie very still.
    • The machine makes loud thumping, clicking, and whirring noises, like the sound of a washing machine. You may be given earplugs or headphones with music.
    • If you need open MRI, these machines use a larger ring instead of a narrow cylinder. This machine doesn’t create as strong a magnetic field, however, so pictures might not be as detailed.
    • MRI scans generally take between 45 and 60 minutes but can take up to two hours in some cases. After the test, you may be told to wait while the pictures are checked to make sure they’re clear.


Minor Risks of MRI

There are a few minor risks associated with MRI:

  • You can be hurt in an MRI machine if you take metal items into the room, or if others leave these items in the room.
  • Some people have feelings of unease or panic while lying in the scanner.
  • Some people react to contrast material and may have symptoms like nausea, pain, headache or low blood pressure leading to faintness (this last symptom is rare).
  • The contrast material, gadolinium, can cause complications in patients on dialysis or who have kidney issues

Other Notes

  • MRI can be expensive, and you should ensure your insurance covers it in advance.
  • People who are overweight may be unable to fit in the machine. In these cases, your doctor may suggest an alternative imaging test.
  • Use of MRI during pregnancy has not been studied well enough, but MRI is not usually done in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Don’t bring credit cards or other items with magnetic stripping into the exam room, as their information might be wiped out.
  • There is no radiation exposure involved in MRI testing.

Your doctor can give you more information or offer recommendations for MRIs for cancer detection or treatment.

Revere Health Imaging offers the most advanced imaging technology in Utah Valley with convenient locations and reduced-cost exams. We even offer our imaging services at night for your convenience. Contact us today at 801-812-4624 for an appointment!


“CT scan (How you prepare).” The Mayo Clinic.

“Positron emission tomography scan (How you prepare).” The Mayo Clinic.

“MRI (How you prepare).” The Mayo Clinic.


The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.