Open Journal of Radiology, 2012, 2, 14-21
http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojrad.2012.21003 Published Online March 2012 (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ojrad)
Diagnostic Accuracy of MRI in Primary Cervical Cancer
Giuliano Rigon1, Cristina Vallone1, Andrea Starita1, Marco Flavio Michele Vismara2,
Pasquale Ialongo3, Lorenza Putignani4*, Fabrizio Signore1*
1Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, S. Camillo-Forlanini Hospital, Rome, Italy
2Department of Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy, “Sapienza” University of Rome, Rome, Italy
3Department of Radiology, S. Camillo-Forlanini Hospital, Rome, Italy
4Microbiology Unit, Children’s Hospital and Research Institute “Bambino Gesù”, Rome, Italy
Email: *firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Received January 14, 2012; revised February 12, 2012; accepted February 22, 2012
Introduction: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies obtained during the initial staging of patients affected by
uterine cervical cancer were compared to the final histological report after surgery. Methods: Data were retrieved from
published papers. Results: MRI detection of lymph node metastases shows a sensitivity of 49.3% (1209 patients) and a
specificity of 87.7% (1182 patients). Parametrial involvement detection has 66.2% sensitivity (1288 patients) and
83.6% specificity (1282 patients). MRI tumor size evaluation shows significant error. Even detection of over 1 cm di-
ameter primary tumor can fail. MRI appears promising in the detection of myometrial and endometrial involvement.
Conclusions: Primary uterine cervical cancer evaluation with routine MRI has a limited accuracy especially in the de-
tection of lymph node involvement and parametrial invasion. It is not sensitive enough to replace histology of dissected
nodes and parametria. Tumor size estimation is imprecise. Detection of myometrial and endometrial invasion using
MRI might be possible. Awareness of MRI limitations is crucial in primary cervical cancer staging.
Keywords: Cervical Cancer; MRI; Parametrial; Lymph Node Involvement
Uterine cervical cancer is the third most common gynae-
cologic malignancy reported in the United States . In
2007 11,150 new cases were diagnosed and 3670 deaths
were expected in the United States . Currently, the
International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics
(FIGO) staging for cervical carcinoma is primarily based
on physical examination. Staging errors are strongly as-
sociated with poor prognosis . Exclusive FIGO clini-
cal staging has been reported as accurate in only 29% of
FIGO staging does not include lymph node status and
tends to underestimate in 20% - 30% of low stage cervi-
cal cancer patients when compared to surgical staging.
FIGO understaging has been reported in up to 23% of
stage IIb disease, and 40% to 64% in stage IIIb. About
40% of the patients receive an inaccurate preoperative
Together with parametrial extension and positive sur-
gical margins, one of the most important prognostic fac-
tors in cervical cancer is the presence of lymph node me-
Imaging technologies, as Computed Assisted Tomo-
graphy (CAT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) might have an im-
pact in determining the proper treatment for patients with
International papers screened using PubMed were re-
viewed. Sensitivity and specificity of routine MRI for 1)
primary tumour detection; 2) internal of involvement; 3)
myometrial invasion; 4) lymph node involvement; 5)
parametrial invasion; 6) bladder invasion; 7) rectal inva-
sion and 8) vaginal invasion were noted. MRI tumor size
evaluation was compared to histologic tumor size. Ra-
diological findings were compared to the postoperative
2.1. Literature Search and Study Selection
This study was approved by San Camillo-Forlanini In-
stitutional Review Board.
A literature search of international studies was carried
out to identify articles on MRI preoperative diagnostic
performance in patients with cervical carcinoma. MED-
LINE database (2000 to 2011) was searched for the fol-
lowing terms: “cervical cancer, cervical neoplasm, MRI,
parametrial and lymph nodes” as medical subject head-
opyright © 2012 SciRes. OJRad
G. RIGON ET AL. 15
ings (MeSH) and “specificity and sensitivity” as text
words. Only original articles with raw data including
comparison between immediately preoperative MRI re-
sults and post-operative histopathology were included.
Eighty two papers were found to be eligible and 40 ful-
filled inclusion criteria at least partially. Only 24 papers
had complete data on lymphnode extension and/or pa-
2.2. Data Evaluation
Two observers independently performed data evaluation,
and discrepancies in judgement were solved by the inde-
pendent appraisal of a third reviewer. The following
items were extracted: 1) year of publication; 2) MRI
technique (most authors used T1 weighted images [T1w]
and T2 weighted images [T2w]; some of them compared
different signals [4,5], or did not specify MRI techniques
[6,7]; best results were used for analysis); 3) total sample
size; 4) presence or absence of tumor in sites like lymph
nodes, parametria, etc.; 5) and tumor size data indicated
Sensitivity and specificity values for lymph node and
parametrial invasion (Tables 1-2), expressed as percent-
age, rounded up/down to the first significant digit, were
calculated from published data.
Table 1 reports the sensitivity and specificity of routine
MRI in detecting lymph node metastases in case of cer-
vical cancer (1444 patients). Overall sensitivity is 51.4%
and specificity is 86.6%. Table 2 reports MRI sensitivity
and specificity in detecting parametrial invasion in cer-
vical cancer (1341 patients). Overall sensitivity is 66.2%
and specificity is 83.8%.
As to other endpoints, like detection of invasion of
proximal structures, data were less homogeneous because
of limited numbers or differences in study design.
Invasion of the serosa l and muscle la yer of th e bladd er.
Rockall et al., highlighted 13 false positives out of 112
patients with an overall sensitivity of 100.0% and a
specificity of 88.0% for bladder invasion detection with
MRI . Hertel et al., calculated a sensitivity of 64.0%
Table 1. MRI detection of lymph node metastases: computation of sensitivity and specificity values.
Patient (N°) Sensitivity (%) Patient (N°) Specificity (%) Reference
101 36.0 101 84.0 
150 37.0 150 92.0 
55 33.3 55 97.4 
119 89.0 119 67.0 
172 37.0 172 94.0 
36 57.0 36 73.0 
44 27.0 44 94.0 
113 36.0 113 97.0 
92 73.0 92 93.8 
109 25.0 109 87.0 
41 82.0 41 87.0 
27 50.0 - - 
22 38.5 22 44.4 
62 72.9 62 93.1 
31 71.0 31 92.0 
35 73.0 35 83.0 
99 77.7 99 85.6 
53 33.0 53 92.0 
83 64.3 83 69.1 
1444a 51.4b 1417c 86.6d This work
aThe number indicates the total number of patients; bThe number is obtained as Σ (patientn × sensitivityn)/1444 and represents the overall sen-
sitivity; cThe number indicates the total number of patients; dThe number is obtained as Σ (patientn × sensitivityn)/1417 and represents the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJRad
G. RIGON ET AL.
Table 2. MRI detection of parametrial invasion: computation of sensitivity and specificity value s.
Patient (N°) Sensitivity (%) Patient (N°) Specificity (%) Reference
101 52.0 101 63.0 
- - 150 97.0 
119 80.0 119 91.3 
112 100.0 - - 
172 53.0 172 75.0 
44 21.0 - - 
113 38.0 113 99.0 
85 77.8 85 88.2 
41 97.0 41 91.0 
75 100.0 75 93.0 
103 60.0 103 73.0 
159 59.3 159 61.5 
31 100.0 31 96.0 
38 90.0 38 92.0 
95 50.0 95 97.8 
53 67.0 53 92.0 
1341a 66.2b 1335a 83.8b This work
aThe number indicates the total number of patients; bThe number is obtained as Σ (patientn × sensitivityn)/1341 and represents the overall sen-
sitivity; cThe number indicates the total number of patients; dThe number is obtained as Σ (patientn × sensitivityn)/1335 and represents the
with a specificity of 88.0% for MRI detectable bladder
involvement . Postema et al., found a sensitivity and a
specificity of 77.0% and 97.0%, respectively, for bladder
invasion detection by MRI . 5 of eighteen patients,
suspected on MRI to have mucosal bladder invasion
were not confirmed at histology. Overall MRI specificity
and sensibility for the MRI detection of mucosal bladder
invasion was 93.5 and 100% in the 92 patient series .
MRI detection of rectal involvement. Rockall et al.,
found 10 false positives out of 112 patients with 100.0%
sensitivity and 91.0% specificity . According to Ra-
jaram et al., MRI correctly assessed both spaces with
accuracy of 88.9 % in vesicocervical space, and 66.7%
for rectovaginal space . Hricak et al., showed that
neither CAT nor MRI were able to detect four cases pre-
senting with tumor in the rectum . Hertel et al., cal-
culated a MRI sensitivity of 50.0% and a specificity of
86.0% for rectal invasion .
MRI detection of vaginal invasion. Choi et al.,  in
23 patients reported a sensitivity of 87.0% and a specifi-
city of 79.0% with 3 false negatives. Sheu et al., 
identified vaginal involvement in 9 patients, with 2 false
negatives and 6 false positives at histological comparison.
The sensitivity was 82.0% and specificity 84.0%. Errors
in the assessment of vaginal invasion occurred in 8 cases
out of 11. In the Sheu’s study , overall sensitivity and
specificity for vaginal invasion detection were 75.0% and
Uterine body involvement cannot be established by the
examining gynaecologist. Sahdev et al.,  found, for
internal os involvement detection, a MRI sensitivity of
90.0% and a specificity of 98.0%.
MRI detection of myometrial invasion. This was ob-
served through MRI by Sahdev et al.,  with a sensi-
tivity of 100.0% and a specificity of 99.0%. MRI cor-
rectly detected all of the 7 tumors extending to the en-
dometrium on 150 patients enrolled in his study. Ac-
cording to Wang et al., , tumors extending to the
uterine body were identified by MRI in 3 out of 4 pa-
tients. In one case microscopic extension to the endo-
metrium was not detected by MRI. Yoo et al.,  stu-
died 99 patients and reported sensitivity and specificity
for deep myometrial invasion MRI detection of 46.6%,
and 84.5%, respectively.
Primary tumor detection by MRI. Sahdev et al., 
pointed out a 20/60 incidence of suspect lesions at MRI
when no tumor was histologically detectable and sug-
gested scar lesions as the culprit. The false negative rate,
for the detection of small tumors (<1 cm diameter), was
50.0% (14/28). Fischerova et al.,  observed a tumor
detection sensitivity of 44% at MRI, with a specificity of
94.3% for tumor bulks ≤1 cm3. Itoh et al.,  set tumor
detection sensitivity at 75.0% in a stage I patient. Lesions
over 2 cm were detected in 83.0% of cases and in 60%
under 2 cm. de Souza et al.,  observed a tumor detec-
tion sensitivity of 87.0% and specificity of 65.0% in 43
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJRad
G. RIGON ET AL. 17
patients with tumor volumes of ≤1 cm³. Sensitivity and
specificity in patients with conization were 95.1% and
57.9%, respectively, while the same values in patients
without conization were 98.2%, and 66.7%, respectively.
According to Sahdev et al., , whose study included
microscopic stage Ia tumors, detection sensitivity and
specificity of the primary tumor was 65.0% and 77.0%,
respectively. The total false-positive MRI rate was 30.6%
(19/62) possibly due to tissue post-biopsy oedema or
chronic inflammation. Fischerova et al., , had a more
favourable experience and found MRI sensitivity for tu-
mor detection of 82.9%, with a specificity of 84.2%. de
Souza et al.,  found false positives in 9 over 119
cases with an overall sensitivity of 96.9% and a specifi-
city of 59.1%. Total results are influenced by low MRI
performance in case of small primary tumors.
Tumor size estimation. According to Sahdev et al.,
, there is an average tumor size estimation error of 9
mm, with 95% limits of agreement from 12.6 mm to 13.0
mm when compared with histology. Error drops to 3 mm
if the tumor exceeds 10 mm. Park et al.,  showed a
volume estimation error of 71.9% if the lesion was con-
fined to the cervix and up to 18.8% if extending to the
vagina. Sheu et al., , for tumors over 1 cm, observed
the overestimation of tumor size in 3 patients: this was
due to inability to differentiate tumor from tissue oedema
resulting from previous biopsy or previous cone biopsy.
In two cases tumor size was underestimated and errors in
measurement were due to indistinct lesion margin. Ac-
cording to Sheu et al., , tumor size detected by MRI
was 3.23 ± 1.75 cm (mean ± standard deviation) com-
pared with 2.79 ± 1.76 cm at pathology evaluation.
Over-estimation of tumor size was consistent in tumors
larger than 10 mm.
Routine MRI equipment has been updated periodically,
but no trend towards a better diagnostic accuracy has
been found , and, in all the papers we reviewed, the
authors used standard 1.5 Tesla equipment. Advanced
MRI techniques, like ultra-small particles of iron oxide
(USPIO) , endorectal/phased-array coils , con-
trast media enhancement  and others (endovaginal
opacification , dynamic MRI imaging, short tau in-
version recovery [STIR] sequence ) have been used in
a limited number of studies but are not addressed by our
review. All these techniques might improve diagnostic
accuracy of MRI studies. MRI results vary according to
the radiologist’s experience [8,22].
Only the results with routine MRI in a clinical setting
have been considered in this paper.
The overall patient sample set is biased  as patients
with inoperable tumors were excluded. However, it
should be noted that bulky tumors were well represented
in all reviewed papers. Tissue preparation for histology
could possibly lead to dehydration and shrinkage of the
tumor mass. MRI overestimation and underestimation of
tumor volume were equally represented in the available
Tumor detection and size estimation. MRI evaluation
does not precisely correlate with histologic tumor size
unless the tumor is bulky (at least 1 cm diameter) .
Tumor size estimation by MRI  seems accurate in Ib
to IIb stages, with a correlation of 0.93%. The problems
observed with MRI evaluation of primary tumor size are:
1) no detection; 2) impossibility of margin definition; 3)
confusion with peritumoral reaction or scars. The issue is
possibly relevant only if the tumor is confined to the cer-
vix (Figures 1(A)-(B)). The incidence of false positive
diagnoses with MRI in Ia1 tumors was 33.0% (20/60),
while false negatives reached 50.0% . Correct diag-
noses were mostly obtained in cases with a previous cone
biopsy suggesting scar and not tumor detection. Some
recent data reported by Fischerova et al., are encouraging
 showing an overall sensitivity of 82.9% and a speci-
ficity of 84.2% in primary tumor detection. For volumes
under 1 cm3, the values became 44.0% and 94.3%, re-
Internal os involvement and myometrial invasion. Pre-
liminary data suggest good results with MRI in the defi-
nition of cervical internal os involvement. Myometrial
and endometrial invasion detection is possible by MRI
(Figure 1(D)) . This issue is not unrelated to tumor
bulk. Some lesions misdiagnosed as bulky first stages
(Figure 1(C)), with unfavourable outcome might include
relatively more advanced cases with uterine body inva-
sion demonstrable identified by MRI. Bipat et a l.,  in
21 patients shows that MRI has a good chance of visual-
izing the internal os. No false-negatives for involvement
of the uterine corpus and 3 false positives with suspect
uterine body invasion were observed by the authors.
Lymph node involvement. Lymph node invasion is dif-
ficult to determine with certainty by MRI and no definite
cut-off has been established as regards volume or maxi-
mum diameter of nodes.
Criteria for nodal involvement are not standardized.
Sahdev et al.,  suggests that the prediction of nodal
status was most accurate when a 9 mm cut-off was ap-
plied to the short-axis diameter of the lymph node .
de Souza et al., , using a cut-off volume of 5.2 cm³,
observed that lymph node metastasis could be predicted
with a 78.6% sensitivity and a 72.5% specificity. A cut-
off of 2.8 cm³ improves sensitivity to 89.0% but this
gives a poor specificity of only 67.0%. Park et al., 
reports that using 1 cm diameter cut-off sensitivity and
specificity were 57.0% and 73.0%, respectively, while
Narayan et al.,  with the same cut-off observes a
MRI sensitivity of 50.0%. MRI apparently might fail
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJRad
G. RIGON ET AL.
Figure 1. (A and B, respectively) T2 weighted (T2w) pulse
sequence MRI showing uterine cervical cancer detection
and invasion. A small lesion confined to the cervix, evalu-
ated through axial T2w and T2w fat-saturated images. (C)
A bulky cervical lesion, invading posterior fornix without
rectal or bladder invasion, assessed by sagittal T2w MRI.
(D) Cervical cancer with myometrial, (E-F) parametrial, (G)
rectal (H) and vaginal invasion detected by: 1) (D) T2w
fat-saturated MRI; 2) (E and F, respectively) axial T2w and
T2w fat-saturated MRI; 3) (G and H) sagittal T2w fat-
because lymph node size can be unaffected in early inva-
sion and large nodes are observed in association with
incidental clinical conditions. Sheu et al.,  found 2
false negatives and 2 false positives, with 71.0% sensi-
tivity and 92.0% specificity. Enlargement of lymph nodes
due to reactive hyperplasia rather than tumor metastases
was noted in 2 patients. In 3 out of 35 women microme-
tastatic disease was missed by MRI, and 4 patients with
abnormally enlarged lymph nodes at MR imaging had
negative findings at histological examination. The sensi-
tivity and specificity were 73.0% and 83.0%, respec-
tively . Hong et al., indicate that MRI lymph node
detection could be related to tumor bulk. The sensitivity
and specificity were 7% and 99.3% in the nonbulky tu-
mor group, 43.8% and 97.1% in the bulky tumor group
Comparison of proximal and distal node detection.
Some preliminary findings suggest better MRI results for
lower pelvis metastatic node detection. Choi et al., 
confirmed the presence of lymph node metastasis in 22
pelvic regions in 17 patients with a sensitivity of 36.0%
and a specificity of 97.0%. Of 3 patients with suspect
para-aortic lymph nodes metastases at MRI, surgical re-
section proved metastases in 2 with a sensitivity of
100.0% and with 1 false positive due to previous tuber-
culous lymphadenitis. According to Bellomi et al., ,
MRI sensitivity and specificity in detecting metastatic
lymph nodes in the lower pelvis were 80.0% and 88.0%,
respectively, while were 37.5% and 97.5% for upper iliac
nodes. Overall MRI sensitivity was 72.9% and specificity
93.1%. Hertel et al.,  analyzed para-aortic and pelvic
lymph nodes separately, with a MRI sensitivity of 25.0%
for the pelvic region and of 0% for the para-aortic region.
The specificity was 87.0% and 98.0%. Yoo et al., 
reported 99 patients and showed sensitivity and specifi-
city for MRI in determining pelvic lymph node metasta-
ses of 77.7% and 85.6%, respectively. MRI failed to de-
tect the presence of paraaortic lymph node metastases in
all of the three patients with positive nodes. Discrepan-
cies between MRI and surgical findings could be ex-
plained by new lesions appearing in previously appa-
rently unaffected lymph nodes.
Parametrial invasion. MRI sensitivity and specificity
in the detection of parametrial invasion indicates prob-
lems in the differentiation between abnormal and simply
reactive tissue (Figur es 1(E)-(F)).
Recent studies suggest an even better specificity value
for parametrial involvement detection. Fujiwara et al., 
demonstrated a sensitivity of 67.8% and a specificity of
95.7% for parametrial involvement detection. Fischerova
et al., , showed a sensitivity of 50.0%, and a speci-
ficity of 97.8%, respectively, for parametrial invasion. If
the cervical stromal ring appears intact at MRI, para-
metrial extension has been reported in 0 to 6% of cases
Parametrial involvement and tumo r bulk. Hricak et al.,
 focused on MRI capability to detect advanced can-
cer stage (≥IIb) showing a sensitivity of 53.0% and a
specificity of 75.0%. Jena et al.,  observed that tumor
volume at MRI in parametrial invasion cases ranges from
17.3 cm3 to 99.2 cm3. The best sensitivity of 59.3% and
specificity of 61.5% was found for a tumor volume of
36.4 cm3. Park et al.,  reported an accuracy of 84.4%
compared with surgical specimen findings, with only 2
patients up-staged (6.3%) but 3 down-staged (9.4%) in-
cluding one with no visible tumor at MRI. Choi et al.,
 showed a sensitivity of 38.0% for 226 parametria
analyzed, with an accuracy of 94.0%. It may be that
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJRad
G. RIGON ET AL. 19
specificity is negatively affected by increasing tumor
bulk. According to Testa et al., MRI provided low sensi-
tivity (2/5, 40.0%) for the presence of parametrial infil-
MRI interpretation might very according to different
radiologists. Reviewing parametrial invasion, Postema et
al. , showed that reader nr. 1 reported a sensitivity of
20.0% and a specificity of 97.0%, while reader nr. 2 ob-
served a sensitivity and a specificity of 60.0% and 73.0%,
Bladder, rectal and vaginal invasion. Data on rectal
invasion detected by MRI in cervical cancer patients are
scant and conflicting. Sensitivity varies from 50 to 100%
in limited reports. MRI overdiagnoses bladder and rectal
invasion. MRI might lead to detection of clinically un-
suspected lesions and has determined restaging in one
instance . Absolute sensitivity and specificity for
MRI detection of rectal invasion (Figure 1(G)) seems to
be aligned to those observed in parametrial tumor detec-
tion. Vaginal invasion might possibly be underdiagnosed
by MRI (Figure 1(H)).
MRI use is encouraged for cervical cancer staging. There
seems to be good correlation between histological and
MRI tumor bulk. There is a high probability of non ex-
tension to parametria if cervical integrity is observed at
MRI and good indication of extension to proximal struc-
tures. Primary preoperative evaluation of uterine cancer
by MRI does not accurately predict the nodal status and
the degree of myometrial and parametrial invasion ,
but MRI shows encouraging progress in the detection of
uterine myometrial and endometrial invasion, where
CAT scans mostly fail.
MRI has been proposed as a substitute for invasive
cystoscopy and proctoscopy in the initial screening of
cervical cancer and preliminary data seem encouraging.
In general, the role of modern imaging techniques still
remains undefined in the current management of uterine
cervical cancer. MRI and CAT have been approved for
use of initial staging in patients with cervical cancer by
Medicare and Medicaid Services . Due to its good
tissue contrast, MRI is the preferred imaging technique
for tumor detection and invasion evaluation in advanced
stage disease . In patients with negative results by
MRI and CAT, the use of PET has been approved by
health care providers such as Medicare . A prelimi-
nary report by Testa et al.,  shows that Ultrasound
(US) and MRI has similar sensitivity and specificity in
preoperative staging. US has the advantages over MRI of
low cost and widespread availability.
Despite all limitations, introduction of MRI has im-
proved staging in cervical cancer patients according to
Chung et al.,  and the American College of Radiology
Imaging Network (ACRIN) study , from 30% - 40%
to about 70% accuracy .
Selman et al.,  reports a pooled negative likelihood
ratio of 50% for lymph-node metastasis detection by
MRI in a meta-analysis of the literature. Adding a senti-
nel lymph node biopsy can raise the accuracy to 94%.
Intraoperative histology could lead to a better primary
staging of uterine cervical cancer. According to Rajaram,
the incidence of positive nodes in stage IB patients, is
approximately 15% . Thus sentinel lymph node (SLN)
evaluation, is a practical approach to reduce extensive
lymph node dissection.
SLN evaluation is an established technique for mela-
noma and breast carcinoma staging and its use in vulva,
lung and cervical carcinoma treatment is being actively
discussed [36-39]. A combined imaging and histology
approach might be warranted in the management of uter-
ine cervical carcinoma.
Awareness of MRI limitations is crucial in primary
cervical cancer staging.
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