Can Ovarian Cancer Be Found Early?

Only about 20% of ovarian cancers are found at an early stage. When ovarian cancer is found early, about 94% of patients live longer than 5 years after diagnosis.

Ways to find ovarian cancer early

Regular women's health exams

During a pelvic exam, the health care professional feels the ovaries and uterus for size, shape, and consistency. A pelvic exam can be useful because it can find some female cancers at an early stage, but most early ovarian tumors are difficult or impossible to feel. Pelvic exams may, however, help find other cancers or female conditions. Women should discuss the need for these exams with their doctor.

The Pap test is effective in early detection of cervical cancer, but it isn’t a test for ovarian cancer. Rarely, ovarian cancers are found through Pap tests, but usually they are at an advanced stage.

See a doctor if you have symptoms

Early cancers of the ovaries often cause no symptoms. Symptoms of ovarian cancer can also be caused by other, less serious conditions. By the time ovarian cancer is considered as a possible cause of these symptoms, it usually has already spread. Also, some types of ovarian cancer can rapidly spread to nearby organs. Prompt attention to symptoms may improve the odds of early diagnosis and successful treatment. If you have symptoms similar to those of ovarian cancer almost daily for more than a few weeks, report them right away to your health care professional.

Screening tests for ovarian cancer

Screening tests and exams are used to detect a disease, like cancer, in people who don’t have any symptoms. (For example, a mammogram can often detect breast cancer in its earliest stage, even before a doctor can feel the cancer.)

There has been a lot of research to develop a screening test for ovarian cancer, but there hasn’t been much success so far. The 2 tests used most often (in addition to a complete pelvic exam) to screen for ovarian cancer are transvaginal ultrasound (TVUS) and the CA-125 blood test.

  • TVUS (transvaginal ultrasound) is a test that uses sound waves to look at the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries by putting an ultrasound wand into the vagina. It can help find a mass (tumor) in the ovary, but it can't actually tell if a mass is cancer or benign. When it is used for screening, most of the masses found are not cancer.
  • The CA-125 blood test measures the amount of a protein called CA-125 in the blood. Many women with ovarian cancer have high levels of CA-125. This test can be useful as a tumor marker to help guide treatment in women known to have ovarian cancer, because a high level often goes down if treatment is working. But checking CA-125 levels has not been found to be as useful as a screening test for ovarian cancer. The problem with using this test for ovarian cancer screening is that high levels of CA-125 is more often caused by common conditions such as endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease. Also, not everyone who has ovarian cancer has a high CA-125 level. When someone who is not known to have ovarian cancer has an abnormal CA-125 level, the doctor might repeat the test (to make sure the result is correct) and may consider ordering a transvaginal ultrasound test.

Better ways to screen for ovarian cancer are being researched but currently there are no reliable screening tests. Hopefully, improvements in screening tests will eventually lead to fewer deaths from ovarian cancer.

If you're at average risk

There are no recommended screening tests for ovarian cancer for women who do not have symptoms and are not at high risk of developing ovarian cancer. In studies of women at average risk of ovarian cancer, using TVUS and CA-125 for screening led to more testing and sometimes more surgeries, but did not lower the number of deaths caused by ovarian cancer. For that reason, no major medical or professional organization recommends the routine use of TVUS or the CA-125 blood test to screen for ovarian cancer in women at average risk.

If you're at high risk

Some organizations state that TVUS and CA-125 may be offered to screen women who have a high risk of ovarian cancer due to an inherited genetic syndrome such as Lynch syndrome, BRCA gene mutations or a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer. Still, even in these women, it has not been proven that using these tests for screening lowers their chances of dying from ovarian cancer.

Screening tests for germ cell tumors/stromal tumors

There are no recommended screening tests for germ cell tumors or stromal tumors. Some germ cell cancers release certain protein markers such as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) into the blood. After these tumors have been treated by surgery and chemotherapy, blood tests for these markers can be used to see if treatment is working and to determine if the cancer is coming back.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: April 11, 2018 Last Revised: April 11, 2018

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