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Ultrasound scan

Read about having an abdominal or transvaginal ultrasound, including what an ultrasound is, how you have it and what happens afterwards.

You may have an abdominal ultrasound or a transvaginal ultrasound. Both types may be used to help diagnose ovarian cancer. 

Ultrasound scans use high frequency sound waves to create a picture of a part of the body. An abdominal ultrasound scan shows up blood flow and changes in your tummy (abdomen), including abnormal growths.

Why you have it

Both abdominal ultrasound and transvaginal ultrasound tests can show whether:

  • your ovaries are the right size
  • your ovaries look normal in texture
  • there are any cysts in your ovaries

Transvaginal ultrasound can help to show whether any cysts on your ovaries contain cancer or not. If a cyst has any solid areas it is more likely to be cancer.

Sometimes, in women who are past their menopause, the ovaries do not show up on an ultrasound. This means that the ovaries are small and not likely to be cancerous.

If you have a suspicious looking cyst, your specialist will recommend that you have surgery to remove it. This may be because it is large and you are past your menopause, or because there is a sign that it may contain cancer cells. The cyst will be examined closely in the laboratory.

To decide if an abnormality is more likely to be cancer or not, doctors can use a tool called the risk of malignancy index (RMI). This index combines the results of the ultrasound, CA125 blood levels and menopausal status (whether or not you are past the menopause). This gives doctors a final score. Women with a high score are referred to a specialist multidisciplinary team who will decide on which further tests and surgery may be necessary.

Your specialist may ask you to have a CT scan to show the ovaries more clearly. Sometimes though, it is not possible to diagnose ovarian cancer for certain without an operation.

If your specialist thinks it unlikely that you have cancer, but cannot completely rule it out, they may ask you to come back for a repeat ultrasound scan in 3 months time, to see if anything has changed.

How you have it

The ultrasound scanner has a microphone that gives off sound waves. The sound waves bounce off the organs inside your body, and the microphone picks them up. The microphone links to a computer that turns the sound waves into a picture on the screen.

abdominal ultrasound

Ultrasound scans are completely painless. You usually have the scan in the hospital x-ray department by a sonographer. A sonographer is a trained professional who is specialised in ultrasound scanning.

Preparing for your scan

Check your appointment letter for any instructions about how to prepare for your scan.

You might need to stop eating for 6 hours beforehand. Let the scan team know if this will be a problem for any reason, for example if you are diabetic.

Your team might ask you to drink plenty before your scan so that you have a comfortably full bladder.

Take your medicines as normal unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

What happens

Before the scan

When you arrive at the clinic a staff member might ask you to take off your upper clothing and put on a hospital gown. You lie on a couch for the test.

During the scan

The sonographer puts a cold lubricating gel over your abdomen. Then they gently rub the handheld probe over your skin. The gel helps the probe to slide over your skin so that the sonographer gets clear pictures on the screen.

You might feel a little pressure when the sonographer moves the probe over your abdomen. Tell them if it is uncomfortable.

The scan can take up to 45 minutes. The sonographer might ask you to change position a few times, so they can get the clearest pictures.

You can have a family member or a friend with you. Just let the sonographer know that someone will be there with you.

Vaginal ultrasound

This is sometimes used to look at the ovaries, womb and surrounding structures. It is called transvaginal ultrasound or TVS. 

The doctor or sonographer will ask you to lie on your back with your knees bent and legs apart (as if you were having a cervical screening test or an internal examination). They will keep you covered with a sheet. If this position is difficult for you, you may be able to lie on your side with your knees drawn up to your chest. 

The doctor puts a small ultrasound microphone or probe into your vagina so that the ovaries and womb can be seen on the scan. This may be uncomfortable, but shouldn't hurt. This type of scan does not take long.

What happens afterwards

You can eat and drink normally after the test. You can go straight home or back to work afterwards.

Possible risks

Ultrasound is a very safe procedure. There are usually no side effects.

Getting your results

Waiting for test results can be a very worrying time. You can contact your specialist nurse if you are finding it hard to cope. You can also get in touch with them to ask for information if you need to. It can also help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For support and information, you can call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
31 Mar 2016
  • The recognition and initial management of ovarian cancer
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), April 2011

  • Newly diagnosed and relapsed epithelial ovarian carcinoma: ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up

    J Ledermann and others; ESMO Guidelines Working Group

    Annals of Oncology. 2013 Oct;24 Suppl 6:vi24-32.

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 9th edition
    L Dougherty and S Lister (Editors)
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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