Women who have regular pelvic exams increase the chance that, if ovarian cancer occurs, it will be found before the disease causes symptoms.
However, pelvic exams often cannot find ovarian cancer at an early stage. Often, the doctor orders a blood test to measure a substance in the blood called CA-125. This substance, called a tumor marker, can be produced by ovarian cancer. However, CA-125 is not always present in women with ovarian cancer, and it may be present in women who have benign ovarian conditions. Thus, this blood test cannot be used alone to diagnose cancer.
A diagnosis can be made only by surgical removal of the mass and/or ovary. Once the mass is removed, a pathologist must examine a sample of the tissue under the microscope to determine the diagnosis. To obtain the tissue, the surgeon does an operation by making an incision. This is called laparotomy. An alternative procedure is laparoscopy, which is surgery performed through small tubes where a camera is used to view the pelvis and abdomen. If cancer is suspected, the surgeon removes the entire ovary. The surgeon should be prepared to perform complete surgical staging if the malignancy appears to be confined to the ovary. A large portion of these patients will have spread that is recognized only by obtaining multiple tissue samples and removing lymph nodes.