Ovarian cancer screening is a way for doctors to look for early signs of ovarian cancer in those who have no symptoms of the disease. To screen for ovarian cancer, doctors can do a blood test called CA 125, an imaging test called an ultrasound, or both. These tests do not always give useful information about whether someone has ovarian cancer. Still, doctors sometimes recommend them for people who are at high risk for ovarian cancer. Experts do not recommend screening for those who are not at high risk.

The goal of screening is to find cancer early, before it has a chance to grow, spread or cause problems. Unfortunately, there is no good proof that screening for ovarian cancer actually helps people live longer.

How does ovarian cancer screening work?

Screening can involve a blood test, an ultrasound or both. The blood test used most often is called CA 125. Other tests are also available or being studied.

  • CA 125 blood tests – CA 125 is a protein in the blood that goes up when a person has ovarian cancer. The trouble is this protein also goes up when a person has other health problems that do not involve cancer. The test can help find ovarian cancer, but it does not clearly show whether or not someone has it.
  • Pelvic ultrasound – During a pelvic ultrasound, an ultrasound technician will insert a small device similar to a tampon into your vagina. The device uses sound waves to create images of the inside of your body. Ultrasounds can find abnormal growths on the ovaries, but they cannot tell whether the growths are caused by cancer. Sometimes growths are caused by less serious health problems or even normal changes that happen during a menstrual cycle.

Who should be screened for ovarian cancer?

It is not clear who should be screened for ovarian cancer. For now, experts agree that:

  • People who are at low risk for ovarian cancer do not need to be screened. This includes those who do not have a family history of ovarian cancer or a cancer gene (described below).
  • People who are at high risk for ovarian cancer and still have their ovaries should be screened in some cases. This includes those who have a family history of ovarian cancer or a gene that increases their chances of getting ovarian cancer. People with the highest risk include those who have had genetic tests showing that they:
    • Carry genes known as the "BRCA" genes
    • Have a genetic condition called Lynch syndrome (also called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer or "HNPCC")

If you have a family history of ovarian cancer or have genes that put you at risk of getting ovarian cancer, discuss the pros and cons of screening with your doctor. They can help you decide if screening is right for you.

What are the benefits of being screened for ovarian cancer?

The main benefit of screening is that it might help doctors find cancer early when it should be easier to treat. This might lower your chances of dying of ovarian cancer.

What are the drawbacks to being screened for ovarian cancer?

The main drawback of being screened is that it can lead to false positives, meaning that screening shows that you might have cancer when you actually do not. This can lead to unneeded worry and to more tests. Sometimes, a false positive test could lead to unneeded surgery.

What happens after screening?

After ovarian cancer screening, you should get a phone call or letter with your results. If you do not hear back about your results within two weeks, call your doctor or nurse's office. Do not assume that your screening test was normal if you hear nothing.

What if my screening test is abnormal?

If your test is abnormal, don't panic. Many people who have abnormal results turn out not to have ovarian cancer. You will need more tests to find out whether or not you actually have cancer. Most people with abnormal results find out they do not have cancer after further testing. But some people with abnormal results need surgery to know for sure if they have cancer. This surgery is usually done through small incisions (cuts), using a tool called a "laparoscope."