Ovarian, Fallopian Tube, and Peritoneal Cancer: Diagnosis

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. Use the menu to see other pages.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. If the cancer has spread, it is called metastasis. Doctors may do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

If your primary care doctor suspects that you might have ovarian/fallopian tube cancer, you should see a gynecologic oncologist. A gynecologic oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancers of the female reproductive system.

Doing laboratory testing, also called pathology testing, of the ovarian and fallopian tube tissues is the only sure way for the doctor to know if an area of the body has cancer. In most cases, this requires surgical removal of these organs.

How ovarian/fallopian tube cancer is diagnosed

There are different tests used for diagnosing ovarian/fallopian tube cancer. Not all tests described here will be used for every person. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of cancer suspected

  • Your signs and symptoms

  • Your age and general health

  • The results of earlier medical tests

While early detection and treatment is important, this is often not possible for ovarian/fallopian tube/peritoneal cancer. There are no effective screening methods for ovarian/fallopian tube/peritoneal cancer. Current testing is based on a protein called cancer antigen 125 (CA-125; see below), which is tested using blood samples. This protein can be at a higher level due to many benign conditions, especially endometriosis, fibroids, and pelvic inflammatory disease, in addition to pregnancy and menstruation. Meanwhile, many benign conditions may look cancerous on a transvaginal ultrasound (see below). Large clinical trials have shown no benefit in screening the general population for ovarian/fallopian tube/peritoneal cancer using these methods.

The annual Pap test that is often done during an annual gynecologic check-up does not check for ovarian cancer. It only checks for cervical cancer. About 70% of epithelial ovarian/fallopian tube cancers, particularly high-grade serous cancers, are not found until the disease is in an advanced stage and has spread to other parts of the body, most commonly the abdomen.

The following tests may be used to help make a diagnosis of ovarian/fallopian tube cancer:

  • Abdominal-pelvic examination. Usually, the first exam is the abdominal-pelvic examination. The doctor feels the uterus, vagina, ovaries, bladder, and rectum to check for any unusual changes, such as a mass. Some cancers are very small before they spread and cannot be reliably felt and detected by pelvic examination. A Pap test, usually done with a pelvic examination, is not likely to find or diagnose these cancers because that test is used to find cervical cancer.

  • Blood tests/CA-125 assay. There is a blood test that measures a substance called CA-125, which is a tumor marker. This marker is found in higher levels in people with ovarian/fallopian tube cancer. People younger than 50 with conditions such as endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and uterine fibroids may also have an increased CA-125 level. This test is more accurate in people who have experienced menopause. Other tumor marker tests, such as HE4, are available, but none of these markers have been found to be effective for the early detection of these cancers.

  • Transvaginal ultrasound. An ultrasound probe is inserted in the vagina and aimed at the ovaries and uterus. An ultrasound creates a picture of the ovaries, including surrounding tissues, cysts, and tumors, using sound waves.

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. An x-ray is a way to create a picture of the structures inside the body using a small amount of radiation. A computer combines these pictures into a 3-dimensional image that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A special dye called a contrast medium is always given before the scan to provide better detail on the image unless a person is unable to receive the dye. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow. A CT scan can be used to measure the tumor’s size and find out how much the cancer has spread. While CT scan technology has continued to evolve, tumors or abnormalities smaller than about 5 millimeters (1/5th of an inch) are difficult to see. A CT scan is often better at giving more accurate measurements of an area of cancer.

  • Positron emission tomography (PET) or PET-CT scan. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A PET scan may be combined with a CT scan (see above), called a PET-CT scan. However, you may hear your doctor refer to this procedure as just a PET scan. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the patient’s body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to actively use energy, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. However, the amount of radiation in the substance is too low to be harmful. A scanner detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body. A PET-CT scan may only be used for certain people with ovarian/fallopian tube cancer. Your doctor can tell you which scan is best for seeing your type of cancer.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI produces detailed images of the inside of the body using magnetic fields, not x-rays. MRI can be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein.

  • Paracentesis. This is a medical procedure that removes peritoneal fluid that has built up in the abdomen. This fluid buildup may be called ascites. Ascites may happen in many people with ovarian cancer. A sample of the fluid is examined under a microscope for signs of cancer (see “Biopsy,” below).

  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to make a definite diagnosis, even if other tests can suggest that cancer is present. During biopsy, a small amount of tissue is removed for examination under a microscope. A pathologist analyzes the sample(s). A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease.

    Biopsies for ovarian/fallopian tube cancer are often done as part of the first surgery. During the surgery, doctors may remove as much of the tumor as possible (see Types of Treatment). A tumor sample will be analyzed by a pathologist after the surgery is over. A biopsy alone is sometimes used if the diagnosis is uncertain or if there is too much tumor to remove initially with surgery. This is usually done when chemotherapy is planned as the first treatment, with possible surgery afterward.

  • Biomarker testing of the tumor. In addition to genetic testing for inherited, or germline, mutations (see Risk Factors and Prevention), your doctor may also recommend running laboratory tests on a tumor to identify specific genes, proteins, and other factors unique to the tumor. This may also be called molecular testing of the tumor. Genetic changes in the tumor cells are called somatic mutations. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends that all people with epithelial ovarian/fallopian tube cancer who do not carry a germline mutation receive somatic tumor testing. Somatic tumor testing can look for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations in the tumor. People with clear cell, endometrioid, mucinous, or other types of epithelial ovarian cancer should also be offered somatic testing for a feature called mismatch repair defect (dMMR). This means the tumor does not repair damage to its DNA very well, which can lead the tumor to developing DNA mutations, or changes. Results of these tests can help determine your treatment options.

    This information is based on ASCO recommendations for Germline and Somatic Tumor Testing in Epithelial Ovarian Cancer. Please note that this link takes you to a separate ASCO website.

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review the results with you. Surgery and an examination of the lymph nodes may be needed before results are complete. If the diagnosis is cancer, these test results help the doctor describe the cancer. This is called staging.

The next section in this guide is Stages and Grades. It explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.