Diagnosis & Tests

for Ovarian Cancer

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They also do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. A biopsy is the only certain way to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. When performing a biopsy, the doctor takes a sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. The doctor may recommend some or all of these tests to help make a diagnosis and further evaluate the cancer.

Accurate surgical evaluation of ovarian cancer is necessary for nearly all patients and can only be accomplished during a laparotomy to determine the stage of the cancer and to remove as much cancer as possible. Patients who have already undergone surgery for ovarian cancer and know their stage of cancer may select from the options below. Patients who have not yet undergone surgery can learn more at Surgical Management of Ovarian Cancer.

In addition to an initial laparotomy to diagnose ovarian cancer, determining the extent of the spread or stage of the cancer requires a number of tests and is ultimately confirmed by surgical removal of the cancer and exploration of the abdominal cavity. The following tests may be used to evaluate ovarian cancer.

Computed Tomography (CT) Scan: A CT scan is a technique for imaging body tissues and organs, during which X-ray transmissions are converted to detailed images, using a computer to synthesize X-ray data. A CT scan is conducted with a large machine positioned outside the body that can rotate to capture detailed images of the organs and tissues inside the body. This method is more sensitive and precise than an X-ray.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI uses a magnetic field rather than X-rays, and can often distinguish more accurately between healthy and diseased tissue. MRI gives better pictures of tumors located near bone than CT, does not use radiation as CT does, and provides pictures from various angles that enable doctors to construct a three-dimensional image of the tumor.

Ultrasound: Ultrasound is a technique that uses sound waves to differentiate tissues based on varying tissue density. Ultrasound can be used transdermally (through the skin), transrectally (using a small probe inserted into the rectum) or intraoperatively (during surgery or during colonoscopy, which is called endoscopic ultrasound). Transrectal or endoscopic ultrasound may be used in conjunction with CT or MRI scans to help with staging.

CA-125:  Elevated levels of the protein CA-125 in the blood have been associated with ovarian cancer. However, the presence of elevated levels of CA-125 in the blood does not always indicate the presence of ovarian cancer because CA-125 levels can be elevated in a number of other conditions. The normal level of CA-125 is less than 35 units per milliliter in the blood. In general, the higher the level of CA-125 found, the greater the chance of having ovarian cancer, especially for women past menopause. Once a diagnosis of ovarian cancer has been established, the level of CA-125 in the blood is a useful indicator of cancer growth during or after treatment.

Genomic or Biomarker Testing-Precision Cancer Medicine

The purpose of precision cancer medicine to define the genomic alterations in the cancers DNA that are driving that specific cancer. Cancer used to be diagnosed solely by a visual microscopic examination of tumor tissue and all patients received the same chemotherapy. Precision cancer medicine utilizes molecular diagnostic & genomic testing, including DNA sequencing, to identify cancer-driving abnormalities in a cancer’s genome. Once a genetic abnormality is identified, a specific targeted therapy can be designed to attack a specific mutation or other cancer-related change in the DNA programming of the cancer cells. Precision cancer medicine uses targeted drugs and immunotherapies engineered to directly attack the cancer cells with specific abnormalities, leaving normal cells largely unharmed.

By testing an individual’s ovarian cancer for specific unique biomarkers doctors can offer the most personalized treatment approach utilizing precision medicines.

Genetic Mutations

Not all ovarian cancer cells are alike. They may differ from one another based on what genes have mutations. Molecular testing is performed to test for certain genetic mutations or the proteins they produce because the results can help select treatment including newer precision cancer medicines designed to attack specific colon cancer cells with specific genetic mutations.

Ovarian Cancer Stages

Following surgical removal and staging of ovarian cancer, a final stage will be given. A Roman numeral from I to IV describes the stage and a letter from “A” to “C” describes a sub-stage. All treatment information concerning ovarian cancer is categorized and discussed by the stage.

Stage I: Cancer is found only in one or both of the ovaries. Cancer cells may also be found in abdominal fluid, or ascites.

Stage II: Cancer is found in the ovaries and has spread to the uterus (womb), the fallopian tubes, or other areas within the pelvis. Cancer cells may also be found in abdominal fluid, or ascites.

Stage III: Cancer is found in the ovaries and has spread to other body locations within the abdomen, such as the surface of the liver, intestine or lymph nodes.

Stage IV: Cancer is found in the ovaries and has spread outside the abdomen or inside of the liver.

Recurrent or Refractory: Recurrent disease means that the cancer has returned (recurred) after it has been treated. Refractory disease means the cancer is no longer responding to treatment.

Next: Screening & Prevention of Ovarian Cancer