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Ovacome is a national charity providing support to anyone affected by ovarian cancer. We give information about symptoms, diagnosis, treatments and research. Ovacome runs a telephone and email support line and works to raise awareness and give a voice to all those affected by ovarian cancer.

This fact sheet gives information about the tests and investigations used to diagnose ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer is diagnosed in around 7000 people every year, making it an uncommon disease. The life time risk of developing it is one in 50; ovarian cancer is most likely to occur in peopl aged more than 45 and after the menopause.

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Symptoms of ovarian cancer

It can be difficult to diagnose ovarian cancer because its symptoms can be very similar to other more common and less serious conditions. 

People can experience vague and varied symptoms, such as generally feeling unwell, changes in bowel or urinary habits and other symptoms that seem more related to abdominal rather than gynaecological problems. 

However, the most recognised symptoms are: 

  • persistent abdominal bloating
  • persistent abdominal or pelvic pain
  • feeling full quickly when eating
  • changes in urination and bowel habits

Those who experience these symptoms frequently (particularly 12 or more times a month) should visit their GP and be offered tests for ovarian cancer.

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Physical examination

You may be given a physical examination.  If your doctor finds that you have ascites, which is fluid in your abdomen causing bloating and swelling, or detects a lump in your abdomen or pelvis, you should be referred urgently to your local gynaecological oncology centre.  This appointment should be within two weeks.

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CA125 blood test

You should be offered a blood test to measure the level of CA125.  This is a protein that acts as a cancer marker.  The results will usually be back in about a week. The normal level is below 35.  If the level is 35 or above it could indicate ovarian cancer – but it could also indicate much less serious conditions too, so further tests are needed.  You should then be sent for an ultrasound scan.

If the CA125 level is found to be in the normal range of less than 35, and you continue to have symptoms that could indicate ovarian cancer, you should be reassessed by your GP after a month.

It is important that the CA125 cancer marker test is offered to people over 50 with symptoms that could suggest irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  This condition arises very rarely for the first time in older people and sometimes IBS is misdiagnosed in those who actually have ovarian cancer.

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Ultrasound scans

Those with symptoms of possible ovarian cancer, and raised levels of CA125 should be sent for an ultrasound scan.  This should be an urgent referral and will probably be to your nearest large hospital.

Ultrasound scanning works by using high frequency sound waves to create a picture of internal organs.  You will be asked to lie down and gel will be applied to your abdomen and pelvis.  A small transducer (microphone) is then moved smoothly over the skin and images of internal organs appear on a screen.

Often a trans-vaginal scan will be needed to get a clearer image of your ovaries. This means a very small transducer is placed in your vagina, which may be uncomfortable but not painful. If you do not want to have an internal ultrasound, let the doctor know. You do not have to give a reason.   

You may be given the result of your scan straight away, or a report will be sent to your GP who will discuss it with you. This may take a few days.

If the scan showed possible evidence of ovarian cancer you will be referred immediately to the gynaecological oncology team at your nearest cancer centre for further investigations.  If the scan showed no evidence and your ovaries looked normal and healthy your GP should ask you to monitor your symptoms and, if they continue, to return in a month for further assessment.

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CT scans

The first appointment with the gynaecological oncology team at the cancer centre will be as an outpatient to be assessed and probably to arrange a CT (computerised tomography) scan of your abdomen and pelvis.

On the day of the scan you may be given a contrast medium, which is a harmless dye that shows up the internal organs.  This is done through a cannula (a thin tube) in a vein in your arm, which will be removed after the scan.  Sometimes the contrast medium can be swallowed as a drink, and sometimes both methods are required.  Before it is used you should be asked if you have any allergies or asthma, or if you have had previous allergic reactions to contrast medium.

You will need to change into a gown and remove jewellery.  You will then be asked to lie on a couch in front of the scanner, which is shaped like a big ring, and stay still while the scanner moves above your abdomen and pelvis. 

The CT scan takes a series of detailed x-rays which build up a three dimensional image of the organs inside your body and show any abnormalities which may suggest a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. The scan results will be analysed and the scan images will help the gynaecological oncology team to decide on a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan.  The results will probably be given to you at a meeting with your gynaecological oncology consultant, which will be arranged by the hospital.

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Having a laparotomy

If the results of the tests indicate that you could have ovarian cancer, you may be admitted to hospital to have a laparotomy.  This is an operation to open the abdomen and look at your organs and the abnormalities that were shown on the CT scan.  During the operation the surgeon may take samples of tissue to be analysed in the laboratory, this will be your histopathology results which will take two to three weeks.

Surgery may not be appropriate if you are not well enough or if the CT scan has shown that you have advanced ovarian cancer and it has spread.  Your doctors will discuss this with you and plan your treatment.

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Test results

After the laparotomy you will be told what was seen during the operation and what the tissue samples have shown and will be given a confirmed diagnosis.  If you are found to have ovarian cancer the clinical team looking after you will plan your continuing treatment.   

If you would like more information on the sources and references for this fact sheet, please call us on our support line 0800 008 7054.

If you would like to discuss anything about ovarian cancer, please phone our support line on 0800 008 7054, Monday to Friday between 10am and 5pm. 

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Reviewed by Valerie Ng, Macmillan nurse specialist in gynaecological cancers, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust

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Disclaimer 

Ovacome fact sheets provide information and support. We make every effort to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information at the time of printing. The information we give is not a substitute for professional medical care.  If you suspect you have cancer you should consult your doctor as quickly as possible.  Ovacome cannot accept liability for any inaccuracy in linked sources.

v.2

Date June 2018

Date for review June 2020 

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Did you find this fact sheet helpful? We welcome your feedback. If you have any comments or suggestions, please email [email protected] or call 0207 299 6653.

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