Ultrasounds send high-frequency sound waves into the body. They help doctors identify abnormal growths and can be used to identify ovarian cancer.

Although ultrasounds can detect tumors and masses, they cannot always identify ovarian cancer. But they can still be a useful diagnostic tool.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 13,770 people will die of ovarian cancer in 2021. The 5-year survival rate for this disease is 49.1%.

Detecting ovarian cancer is the first step in diagnosing and treating the condition. An ultrasound exam can help healthcare professionals identify abnormal growths in the ovaries, which is an important start to the treatment journey.

Read more to learn about how ultrasound exams work, what types of ultrasound may find ovarian cancer, and other detection methods.

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An ultrasound sends high-frequency sound waves into the body. These waves bounce back against different parts of the body, and the ultrasound scanner measures how long it takes for them to bounce back.

It uses these times to calculate distances in the body and create a two-dimensional image of its interior.

Healthcare professionals use ultrasounds for many medical procedures, including:

  • visualizing a fetus during pregnancy
  • listening to a fetus’ heartbeat
  • conducting a breast exam
  • examining the heart
  • observing blood vessels

When using ultrasound to look for ovarian cancer, healthcare professionals often use a transvaginal ultrasound. This type of ultrasound uses a wand inserted into the vagina.

It allows a doctor to visualize a person’s uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.

Although a transvaginal ultrasound can determine if a person has masses on their ovaries, it cannot tell whether they are cancerous. A biopsy is needed to determine if the masses are malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous).

Usually, masses found on the ovaries are not cancer. Ultrasounds frequently detect ovarian cysts, which are common in people who menstruate.

Healthcare professionals use two main types of ultrasound scans for detecting ovarian cancer: external (performed outside the body) and internal (performed inside the body).

External ultrasound

A person may need to stop eating several hours before the exam. The doctor may also ask them to have a comfortably full bladder, as this allows for better visualization of the pelvic organs and structures.

During an external ultrasound, a medical professional will spread a clear gel over the area they are looking at. This gel makes it easier for sound waves to travel.

They then place an ultrasound probe on the skin and gently press it over the area they are examining. It should not be painful, and the procedure usually takes up to 45 minutes.

The procedure is noninvasive and known as a safe procedure.

Internal ultrasound

A transvaginal ultrasound, also called an endovaginal ultrasound, is an internal test.

The overall process is similar to that of external ultrasound. But instead of the probe going on top of the skin, it enters the body through the vagina.

During an internal ultrasound, a person rests on their back with their knees bent and legs spread apart.

A healthcare professional inserts a lubricated ultrasound probe into the vagina. In some cases, people may experience discomfort during the procedure, but this is usually mild.

Internal ultrasounds can create higher quality images than external ultrasounds, which can help healthcare professionals determine if a person has a particular condition.

In addition to showing the size and shape of any masses, transvaginal ultrasounds can determine their volume. Irregular volumes, fluid, or structures may indicate abnormalities that could be ovarian cancer.

A doctor will order more tests, such as a biopsy, to determine whether a mass is cancerous. Ultrasounds can raise suspicions of cancer, but they cannot confirm cancer.

When ovarian cancer is detected early, a person’s outlook improves. One study notes that early detection is associated with a 5-year survival rate of 90%.

So can ultrasound increase the chance of early detection?

There is no current evidence to suggest that ultrasounds detect ovarian cancer earlier than other screening tools. There is currently no screening tool proven to detect ovarian cancer early.

One recent study analyzed different screening tools in a group of 202,562 women. The participants received either no screening, a transvaginal ultrasound, or a combination of ultrasounds and blood tests. After nearly 20 years, the researchers found no differences in the number of ovarian cancer deaths between the groups.

Future research may lead to better options for people at risk of developing ovarian cancer.

In addition to ultrasounds, there are several tests that doctors use to check for ovarian cancer. Doctors use these tests if an ultrasound has shown an abnormality, raising their suspicion of cancer.

Doctors do not use ultrasounds as screening tools in most people. But some people with certain gene mutations or strong family history may have the tests at the discretion of their doctor.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), researchers continue to look at new screening tests. The intention is for these to lead to fewer ovarian cancer deaths in the future.

Blood testing

If a doctor suspects ovarian cancer due to abnormalities on an ultrasound, they may perform blood tests. This lets them check for certain markers in a person’s blood that may indicate cancer.

But a blood test alone cannot confirm a diagnosis.


Although imaging tests such as ultrasounds can find masses on the ovaries, they cannot tell whether they are cancerous.

To determine whether a growth is malignant or benign, a doctor will conduct a biopsy.

They may remove either part of or all of the mass during a surgical procedure. Then, they will send the sample to a laboratory for testing.

Genetic testing

Certain genetic factors are associated with a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Some genes may have mutations, or errors in their genetic code, that play a role in cancer development.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer, also increase their risk of getting ovarian cancer. They are present in 10–15% of ovarian cancer cases.

Researchers recently conducted a study looking at genetic abnormalities in ovarian cancer tumors. They found a gene mutation called meth-HOXA9 in 93% of the 138 tissue samples.

Future screening techniques may use these and other forms of genetic testing to detect ovarian cancer.

Although there are no reliable screening methods for ovarian cancer, researchers have identified factors that may contribute to a person’s risk of developing it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), individuals at lower risk of ovarian cancer have:

  • given birth to a child
  • breastfed for at least 1 year
  • used oral contraception for at least 5 years
  • had their ovaries or uterus removed

Additionally, research has shown that people can reduce their risk of developing ovarian cancer by following a balanced, moderate lifestyle.

Some positive lifestyle choices include:

  • reaching or maintaining a moderate body weight
  • eating fruits and vegetables
  • participating in regular exercise
  • limiting consumption of refined sugar

Taking care of the body is a lifetime journey that looks different for everyone. Taking simple steps such as these may help reduce a person’s risk of serious diseases such as ovarian cancer.

People at risk of ovarian cancer, such as people with a family history of the disease, should consult a doctor to discuss screening and prevention options.

Doctors often use transvaginal ultrasounds when diagnosing ovarian cancer. While this type of ultrasound can identify masses on the ovaries, it cannot tell for certain whether they are cancerous.

Although there is no established screening test for ovarian cancer, genetic testing may play a role. Researchers are continuing the search for better, more accurate tests.

By following a balanced lifestyle and working with their doctors, people can take steps to reduce their risk of serious diseases such as ovarian cancer.