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Can you see cancer in the abdomen with ultrasound?


Ultrasound is a commonly used imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce images of structures within the body. It is a safe, non-invasive, and relatively inexpensive tool that can provide valuable information about many abdominal diseases and conditions, including cancer. Ultrasound has moderate sensitivity for detecting cancers in the abdomen. While it cannot definitively diagnose cancer on its own, ultrasound can identify masses, abnormalities, and fluid buildup that may indicate cancer is present. When used alongside other imaging modalities and diagnostic techniques, ultrasound can play an important role in evaluating patients for abdominal cancers.

How ultrasound works

Ultrasound uses the transmission of sound waves and their echoes to outline structures in the body. A transducer (probe) sends out high-frequency sound waves, typically between 2-18 MHz, and picks up the echoes as they bounce off tissues and organs. The transducer converts the sound waves into electrical impulses that a computer then translates into images.

Soft tissues allow sound waves to pass through easily and produce faint echoes. Dense structures like bone reflect the waves and create strong echoes. The differences in density show up as light and dark areas on the ultrasound image. For example, solid tumors and fluid-filled cysts appear as dark masses compared to the lighter, surrounding tissue.

Using ultrasound to evaluate the abdomen

Due to its portability, lack of radiation, and low cost, ultrasound is usually one of the first imaging tests ordered when a patient presents with abdominal complaints. It can provide important information about:

  • The size, shape, and texture of organs like the liver, kidneys, pancreas, bladder, spleen, and lymph nodes
  • The presence of masses, cysts, or fluid-filled spaces
  • Abnormal thickening of organs or tissues
  • Blockages or obstructions in the gallbladder, kidneys, or blood vessels

Ultrasound allows real-time visualization of moving structures and blood flow inside vessels. Doppler ultrasound can measure the speed and direction of blood flow. Power Doppler enhances sensitivity for small vessels. These capabilities make ultrasound extremely useful for examining the abdominal organs and vasculature.

Abdominal cancers detectable with ultrasound

Ultrasound has varying ability to detect different types of cancer based on the location, size, and properties of the tumor. Abdominal cancers that ultrasound may reveal include:

Pancreatic cancer

The pancreas lies deep within the abdomen, which makes palpation difficult. Ultrasound can identify masses in the pancreatic head and body in about 77% of patients. Dilated pancreatic and biliary ducts are also suggestive of pancreatic cancer. However, small tumors Liver cancer

Liver tumors appear as focal masses with different echogenicity than the background liver tissue. However, ultrasound has low sensitivity for small liver metastases. CT or MRI is more accurate for staging liver cancer.

Gallbladder cancer

Ultrasound can detect approximately 90% of gallbladder cancers as an irregular thickening of the gallbladder wall. It can also evaluate for masses, obstruction, and fistulas.

Stomach cancer

Gastric cancer presents as a thickening of the stomach wall. Upper abdominal ultrasound can identify abnormalities and fluid buildup caused by advanced stomach cancer. However, endoscopy remains the gold standard for diagnosis.

Colorectal cancer

While ultrasound is not routinely used to screen for colorectal cancer, it may detect larger tumors that have spread locally to other abdominal structures. Detailed evaluation requires more sensitive techniques like CT colonography.

Kidney cancer

Most kidney tumors are discovered incidentally on abdominal ultrasound. Small lesions under 3 cm may be difficult to differentiate from benign cysts based on ultrasound alone. CT or MRI can better characterize kidney masses.


Enlarged abdominal lymph nodes may indicate lymphoma. Ultrasound can measure nodes, look for clusters, and assess changes over time. It can also guide needle biopsies of suspicious nodes.

Ovarian cancer

Ultrasound is widely used for evaluating ovarian masses and cysts. Large, solid, irregular masses with increased blood flow markers warrant suspicion for ovarian cancer. However, ultrasound cannot definitively diagnose malignancy.

Uterine cancer

Ultrasound accurately depicts the size and shape of the uterus. Thickened endometrial stripes over 1 cm suggest uterine cancer and prompt biopsy. Ultrasound is quite sensitive for uterine malignancies.

Bladder cancer

Bladder tumors often cause wall thickening detectable on transabdominal ultrasound. However, transvaginal ultrasound provides better visualization for staging bladder cancer.

Limitations of abdominal ultrasound

While ultrasound is a helpful initial test, it does have some limitations:

  • Operator dependence – Image quality relies heavily on the skill and experience of the ultrasonographer.
  • Large body habitus – Obese patients are more difficult to image due to the thickness of fat tissues attenuating sound waves.
  • Bowel gas – Intestinal gas reflects ultrasound waves and produces shadowing that obscures deeper organs.
  • Small lesions – Tumors
  • Retroperitoneum – Cancers arising behind the abdominal organs can be difficult to detect.
  • Specificity – Many benign conditions like cysts, fibroids, adenomas, etc. can mimic malignancy on ultrasound.

These limitations mean ultrasound cannot definitively diagnose cancer. Biopsy and additional imaging are usually needed to confirm abdominal cancers. CT and MRI have higher sensitivity and specificity than ultrasound for staging cancers and evaluating spread to other organs.

Role of ultrasound in cancer detection

Despite its limitations, ultrasound remains extremely useful as an initial test for evaluating abdominal symptoms and identifying areas of concern for cancer. Benefits of ultrasound include:

  • Wide availability and relatively low cost
  • Lack of ionizing radiation – Safe for repeat testing and pregnancy
  • Real-time imaging allows visualization of blood flow
  • Complementary information to CT and MRI
  • Can guide biopsies and drainages
  • Portable – Can be brought to bedside

While ultrasound alone cannot diagnose cancer definitively, it can:

  • Detect masses and organ enlargement that may indicate malignancy
  • Identify areas to target for biopsy
  • Monitor known tumors for changes in size and appearance
  • Look for recurrence after treatment
  • Guide interventional procedures on cancerous tissues

Ultrasound should form part of a multimodal approach to diagnosing and managing abdominal cancers. It offers a radiation-free, easily repeatable way of surveying the abdomen. Ultrasound can uncover warning signs of cancer and direct further testing in at-risk patients. Patients may undergo multiple ultrasounds during diagnosis, treatment, and follow up of cancer.

Talking to your doctor about abdominal ultrasound

If you have symptoms or risk factors concerning for abdominal cancer, ultrasound may be an appropriate initial imaging test, along with a physical exam. Ultrasound is especially useful for assessing palpable masses, swelling, organ enlargement, and fluid buildup.

Some key questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What type of ultrasound do you recommend based on my symptoms?
  • Are there any limitations or things that could be missed?
  • Will I need other imaging tests like a CT or MRI scan?
  • How will the ultrasound results influence my diagnosis and treatment plan?
  • Will I need repeat ultrasounds later for surveillance?
  • Are there any special preparations needed for the ultrasound?
  • How accurate is ultrasound for detecting growths or masses?

Understanding the purpose, capabilities, and limitations of your abdominal ultrasound empowers you to make informed decisions about your health. Ultrasound is often the first imaging step, but not the last word, in diagnosing abdominal cancers. Discuss how this safe, accessible test fits into your broader evaluation and management with your healthcare team.


Ultrasound is a helpful, non-invasive tool that can detect some—but not all—abdominal cancers. It excels at identifying masses, organ enlargement, distorted architecture, and abnormal fluid. However, ultrasound has moderate sensitivity and specificity for discerning malignant vs benign processes. Small lesions and cancers behind organs are often obscured. While ultrasound cannot definitively diagnose cancer on its own, it provides an important first look into the abdomen. Ultrasound forms one piece of the larger diagnostic process, which may also include CT, MRI, endoscopy and biopsy. With a skilled operator, ultrasound can uncover red flags and direct the next steps to accurately diagnose and stage abdominal cancers.

Summary of advantages and disadvantages of abdominal ultrasound for cancer detection
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Widely available
  • Low cost
  • No ionizing radiation
  • Real-time imaging
  • Can guide biopsies/drainage
  • Can be repeated often
  • User-dependent results
  • Lower sensitivity for small lesions
  • Less accurate in obese patients
  • Blind spots from bowel gas/bone
  • Cannot fully stage cancers