Can a Pelvic Exam Detect Ovarian Cancer?

Can a Pelvic Exam Detect Ovarian Cancer?

Ovarian cancer is a leading cause of death for women in the U.S. Around 20,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2024, with nearly 13,000 women passing away from the disease. However, despite these tragic statistics, better treatments and earlier detection have seen ovarian cancer deaths decrease by 40% in the last 50 years. 

Understanding the risk factors for ovarian cancer and how routine pelvic exams identify early signs can protect your well-being and reproductive health.  

Signs and Symptoms of Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer occurs when abnormal cells develop in or near the ovaries, organs responsible for producing eggs and female hormones. It can be challenging to detect in its early stages because of its vague symptoms, which resemble other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Warning signs of ovarian cancer can include: 

  • Abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in bowel habits, like constipation
  • Feeling full quickly while eating
  • Pelvic area discomfort

Who’s Most at Risk?

Some women are at high risk of developing ovarian cancer, making regular exams vital to their health. If you fall into any of the following categories, you may need more frequent pelvic exams to protect your health: 

  • You are post-menopausal and over 60 (Nearly 50% of women with ovarian cancer are 63 or older)
  • There is a family history of ovarian, breast or colorectal cancer
  • You have never been pregnant
  • A family member has been diagnosed with a gynecologic cancer
  • You experienced early menstruation or late menopause
  • Genetic mutations, such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes

Can a Pelvic Exam Help Detect the Condition?

A pelvic exam is an essential step in the early detection of various conditions, including ovarian cancer. It identifies signs that may suggest the need for further diagnostic procedures. Here’s how your provider can conduct an exam using a speculum to detect the condition: 

  • Detects physical abnormalities. During a pelvic exam, your healthcare provider palpates (feels) the ovaries, fallopian tubes and surrounding pelvic organs for any lumps, swellings, or changes in size and shape. This can reveal the presence of ovarian tumors or cysts.
  • Identifies changes in the reproductive organs. Your provider uses a speculum tool

to gently open the vaginal walls and examine the uterus and cervix. This helps them look for physical changes or irregularities that might suggest ovarian cancer or precancerous conditions.

  • Checks for abnormal cells. During a pelvic exam, your doctor may perform a Pap smear to collect cells from the cervix to screen for cervical cancer. If any cancer cells are found, it can prompt further action, including additional tests to identify different types of cancers.
  • Initiates further diagnostic actions. If there are any unusual findings during the pelvic exam, the provider can recommend additional tests, such as a CA-125 blood test or transvaginal ultrasound, which uses sound waves to identify growths. These procedures can accurately test for ovarian cancer, determine how far the cancer has spread and initiate a referral to a gynecologic oncologist for treatment. 
  • Enhances patient-doctor communication. The exam provides an opportunity for you to discuss symptoms or concerns that might be related to ovarian cancer, such as abdominal bloating, pain or changes in menstrual cycles. This can help your doctor identify tumor markers in their early stages for better health outcomes. 

Questions to Ask Your Provider at Your Pelvic Exam

Knowing what to expect during your routine pelvic exam can alleviate anxiety or uneasiness. Asking your doctor the following questions ensures you understand what the procedure entails and what happens if they find anything unusual:

  • What tests will be included in my pelvic exam? This helps you understand the scope of the exam and prepares you for what to expect. For instance, will you undergo a Pap smear, sexually transmitted infection screening or colorectal exam? This information can help you prepare and schedule the exam when you’re not on your period, which could affect the results.

  • Based on my health history, am I at increased risk for ovarian cancer? Knowing your risk factors for ovarian cancer and other cancers is crucial for proactive health management. This question encourages a discussion about your personal and family medical history, potentially leading to recommendations for genetic testing or more frequent screenings.

  • What are the next steps if something unusual is found during the exam? Asking about potential follow-up procedures or tests helps you prepare for what might come next if your doctor finds something concerning. This could include further diagnostic testing, a referral to a gynecologic oncologist, or other specialized care.

  • Embrace Proactive Reproductive Health with Nella

    Pelvic exams can help detect ovarian cancer, empowering you to get help early for better health outcomes. To help make these appointments as comfortable as possible, we created a slim, silent disposable speculum that your provider can use during the examination. 

    Our speculum works the same way as traditional metal or plastic tools but offers a less intimidating experience. Talk to your provider about Nella or order the Nella Comfort Kit and have it shipped to your home or clinician’s office today.
    Back to blog