What Imaging Tests Are Used to Diagnose Ovarian Cancer?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2021

Early diagnosis of ovarian cancer is important. It is much easier to treat ovarian cancer when it is diagnosed in the early stages. Doctors will typically use a variety of tests and tools to help them make a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. These can include things like imaging, blood work, and surgery.

Imaging tests are evaluations that use medical equipment to create pictures of the body. There are several different imaging tests that may be used during diagnosis or staging of ovarian cancer. They are also used to see how well a treatment has worked, if the cancer has returned, or if it has spread. Doctors often use several of these imaging tests to help them get a complete picture of the body.

Types of imaging tests used to diagnose ovarian cancer


Ultrasounds use sound waves to create an image on a screen. For ovarian cancer, a transvaginal ultrasound is typically done. This is when a probe is inserted into the vagina. High-energy sound waves are then bounced off of tissues and organs like the ovaries, uterus, bladder, and fallopian tubes. These wave echoes create a picture of the organs, tissues, and surrounding structures.1,2

Ultrasound is usually the first imaging test that is done when evaluating for ovarian cancer. It can detect the difference between a solid tumor and fluid-filled cyst. This can help your doctor decide if more tests are needed. Ultrasounds can also show the size of the ovary and if there are any other abnormalities.1

Computed tomography (CT) scans

A computed tomography scan, or CT scan, is a kind of X-ray test that shows cross-sections of the inside of the body. This test is not typically to diagnose ovarian cancer, but it may be used when ovarian cancer has already been detected by other tests.1

A CT scan can be helpful to show whether an ovarian tumor has grown into other organs, signs that the kidneys or bladder are affected and whether lymph nodes are enlarged. A CT scan can also help doctors do a guided needle biopsy if they think ovarian cancer tumors have spread to other areas of the body.2

Other imaging tests to look for cancer spread

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans can detect areas of cancer in the body and see if the cancer has spread. In a PET scan, radioactive glucose (a form of sugar) is given to a person. Body cells take in different amounts of glucose based on how fast they are growing. Cancer cells, which grow very fast, typically take in more glucose than non-cancerous cells. On a PET scan, these areas light up when a special camera is used.1

A chest X-ray might be done to see if ovarian cancer has spread to the lungs. In some cases of advanced ovarian cancer, it may spread to the lungs and cause fluid build-up around the lungs. This is called pleural effusion. A chest X-ray can show this.1

MRI, also known as magnetic resonance imaging, scans take cross-sectional images of the inside of the body using strong magnets. MRIs are not generally used to diagnose ovarian cancer, but they can help doctors see if the cancer has spread to the brain and spinal cord.1

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