How am I Diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer?

This article was originally published by the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition here.


Most women with ovarian cancer are diagnosed with advanced-stage disease (Stage III or IV). This is because the symptoms of ovarian cancer, particularly in the early stages, often are not acute or intense, and present vaguely. In most cases, ovarian cancer is not detected during routine pelvic exams, unless the doctor notes that the ovary is enlarged. The sooner ovarian cancer is found and treated, the better a woman’s chance for survival. It is important to know that early stage symptoms can be difficult to detect, though are not always silent. As a result, it is important that women listen to their bodies and watch for early symptoms that may present.

Did You Know?

The Pap test does not detect ovarian cancer. It determines cervical cancer.

Screening Tests

Although there is no consistently-reliable screening test to detect ovarian cancer, the following tests are available and should be offered to women, especially those women at high risk for the disease:

  • Pelvic Exam: Women age 18 and older should have a mandatory annual vaginal exam. Women age 35 and older should receive an annual rectovaginal exam (physician inserts fingers in the rectum and vagina simultaneously to feel for abnormal swelling and to detect tenderness).
  • Transvaginal Sonography: This ultrasound, performed with a small instrument placed in the vagina, is appropriate, especially for women at high risk for ovarian cancer, or for those with an abnormal pelvic exam.
  • CA-125 Test: This blood test determines if the level of CA-125, a protein produced by ovarian cancer cells, has increased in the blood of a woman at high risk for ovarian cancer, or a woman with an abnormal pelvic examination.

While CA-125 is an important test, it is not always a key marker for the disease. Some non-cancerous diseases of the ovaries can also increase CA-125 levels, and some ovarian cancers may not produce enough CA-125 levels to cause a positive test. For these reasons the CA-125 test is not routinely used as a screening test for those at average risk for ovarian cancer.

Positive Tests

If any of these tests are positive, a woman should consult with a gynecologic oncologist, who may conduct a CT scan and evaluate the test results. However, the only way to more accurately confirm an ovarian cancer diagnosis is with a biopsy, a procedure in which the doctor takes a sample of the tumor and examines it under a microscope.

Research into new ovarian cancer screening tests is ongoing and new diagnostic tests may be on the horizon. NOCC monitors the latest scientific developments. Please visit our Research page for additional information.