Ovarian cancer affects the ovaries and can spread throughout the body. Doctors use MRI scans to monitor the condition and make treatment decisions.

Ovarian cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer-related death affecting females in the United States. It is the gynecological cancer that causes the highest number of deaths.

Several tests, including imaging tests, are necessary to help doctors diagnose ovarian cancer.

MRI scans are one type of imaging test. Although these scans may not be a doctor’s first choice for confirming a diagnosis, they can help with staging, as they provide a clear image of the uterus, lymph nodes, and surrounding tissue.

This article discusses why a doctor may order an MRI of the uterus alongside other tests to diagnose and stage ovarian cancer.

An image of an MRI machine.Share on Pinterest
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According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) and other organizations, doctors do not typically use an MRI to check for ovarian cancer. Instead, they tend to use this imaging scan to examine the areas to which the cancer may have spread or to identify other cancers affecting the spinal cord or brain.

If a doctor suspects that someone has ovarian cancer, they will likely use different imaging and diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis.

An MRI can show a detailed image of the uterus, lymph nodes, and other surrounding areas.

Doctors do not typically recommend an MRI for the initial diagnosis of ovarian cancer. However, they may use an MRI to get more information about areas that it is difficult to see using a CT scan.

According to the authors of a 2018 review, an MRI with or without a contrast dye may be appropriate to assist doctors with determining the stage of ovarian cancer at the point of diagnosis or confirming a recurrence.

The researchers also note that doctors commonly use a CT scan rather than an MRI for staging cancer. They recommend an MRI in cases where:

  • a person has a borderline tumor
  • previous staging has taken place with techniques that do not affect fertility
  • the results of a CT scan are inconclusive

In addition, a doctor may recommend an MRI when various conditions are possible. As MRI scans produce accurate images, doctors can use them to rule out or distinguish between other conditions, including:

The results of an MRI can also help a doctor determine whether a surgeon will easily be able to remove the tumor.

Despite the safety of MRI scans, doctors typically avoid using them to examine the ovaries because a person’s movements can interfere with the results more easily than they can with a CT scan.

An MRI scan is a minimally invasive outpatient procedure, which means that a person will typically go home shortly after it is complete. It is not necessary to make any preparations before undergoing an MRI.

Once at the MRI facility, the person will change into a hospital gown for the procedure. They will likely receive a contrast dye injection before lying down on the examination table.

A technician will then position the machine — which is a large, tube-shaped magnet — over the person’s abdomen and pelvis. As the machine works, the person will hear intermittent banging noises. The technician will then remove the equipment and provide any final instructions to the person.

The procedure can take 45–60 minutes to complete. Some facilities may offer certain items, such as hearing plugs, to help keep the person comfortable. A doctor can provide more information about the facility and procedure ahead of time.

The ACS notes that a CT scan cannot show a small ovarian tumor. Instead, doctors will need to use a CT scan to check whether the cancer has spread to nearby tissues or organs.

Similar to an MRI, the person will typically need an injection of contrasting material to create an image of the ovaries.

A doctor can also use a CT scan to guide a biopsy of the surrounding tissue. Doctors use CT-guided needle biopsy procedures to direct a needle into the tumor.

A doctor may order one of several different imaging tests to diagnose, stage, or find out other information about ovarian cancer.

Some imaging tests that a doctor may recommend include:

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to create an image of the ovaries. Doctors typically use it as the first test to look for ovarian cancer, cysts, or other issues that may affect the ovaries.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET): Ahead of a PET scan, a technician injects radioactive sugar. Cells need varying amounts of sugar depending on how fast they are growing. As cancer cells grow more rapidly than regular cells, they will take in a large amount of sugar. Due to this, the test will show if a tumor is present.
  • Chest X-ray: While X-rays cannot test for ovarian cancer, they can show if the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, such as the lungs.
  • Lower gastrointestinal tract radiography: This exam uses a barium enema and an X-ray to check the colon for signs that the cancer has spread to the organ.

In addition to imaging tests, a doctor may order other diagnostic tests, such as:

  • Laparoscopy: For this procedure, a surgeon makes a small incision in the abdomen through which they insert a small tube with an attached light and camera to check for signs of ovarian cancer.
  • Exploratory laparotomy: During an exploratory laparotomy, a surgeon makes an incision in the abdomen to examine the ovaries and other organs in the pelvis. If cancer is present, the surgeon will likely remove the ovaries, tumor mass, and uterus from the person’s abdomen.
  • Blood tests: A doctor may order several tests to check blood cell counts and liver and kidney function. In addition, they may order a CA-125 test, which checks for elevated levels of CA-125, a marker for ovarian cancer.
  • Colonoscopy: This test can check the large intestine for signs that the cancer has spread.

In some cases, a doctor may order an MRI scan to help examine and stage ovarian cancer. However, additional testing, such as PET and CT scans, will be necessary to confirm a diagnosis.

Alongside scans, a doctor may order other tests, such as blood tests. A person should speak with a doctor about the tests they are likely to need.