How is Ovarian Cancer Diagnosed?

Jane Akre
July 8, 2016

How is Ovarian Cancer Diagnosed?

Ovarian cancer is suspected if a pelvic mass is found during a routine medical exam, or if common ovarian cancer symptoms develop. There are a number of tests that help doctors make the diagnosis. These include the pelvic exam, radiologic scans and surgery. The definitive test for cancer is a biopsy.

Pelvic Exam

During a pelvic exam, the provider attempts to feel if there are any abnormalities of the pelvic organs, or if there are specific areas of increased tension or discomfort. It is not unusual to find that one ovary is larger than the other, or to feel a growth. Many women develop cysts or tumors that are not cancerous. However, whenever there is an abnormality, follow-up testing is always ordered and should be completed right away.

Blood Tests

CA-125 is a protein found in cancerous ovarian tumors. This protein makes its way into the blood stream which allows it to be seen on a blood test. The CA-125 blood test is not used to regularly screen for ovarian cancer, since other non-cancerous tissues can also cause this protein to show up in the blood. However, it is a good test to use when there is already a suspicion of ovarian cancer, or when someone is going through ovarian cancer treatment to determine if it is working.

Radiologic Tests

Another early test is the ultrasound. During the ultrasound a probe is inserted into the vagina. Another probe is passed over the lower abdomen.

Using sound waves an image of the internal organs is generated on a screen. Ultrasounds can identify abnormal growths, and also show if the growths are solid or fluid filled. Growths that contain fluid are nearly always non-cancerous cysts.

If growths are noted, additional tests such as a chest x-ray, CT scan, PET scan or MRI may be ordered. These create highly detailed images of any abnormalities, and help identify additional growths needing biopsy or surgical removal.


The only way to know if an abnormality is cancer is to do a biopsy. A biopsy obtains tissue from the growth itself. There are a number of ways this can be accomplished.

It is common for a surgeon to remove the entire ovarian tumor, and any other tumors seen on the radiologic scans. All of the tissues removed would be sent to pathology for analysis.

A less invasive approach is a fine needle aspiration. During a fine needle aspiration, the skin is numbed and a needle is inserted through the skin into the growth. The needle removes a tissue sample which is then sent for testing.

It can take a week or longer to get a complete biopsy report from the lab.

Get the Tests

It is extremely important to go to all follow up appointments, get the screening, blood tests and biopsy done as quickly as possible. Ovarian cancer spreads quickly, and it is often diagnosed in late stages when there are fewer treatment options available.

Catching it early is important. If you are afraid of getting the tests done because you don’t want bad news, talk to your health care provider so they can help you through the process.

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