Can ultrasound detect cancer?

Medical imaging has revolutionised the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases, including cancer. One such imaging technique is ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of internal organs and tissues and check for any abnormalities. It’s painless and non-invasive. In the United Kingdom ultrasound scans are commonly used to detect liver cancer, pancreatic cancer, gallbladder cancer and prostate cancer. An ultrasound scan can also rule out cancer and diagnose different conditions.

Why would I need an ultrasound scan?

If you’ve been suffering from upper abdominal or pelvic symptoms - pain, swelling, or any other types of discomfort, your doctor may recommend an ultrasound examination. This will investigate potential causes of the symptoms. You can also book a private ultrasound before seeing your GP to skip long NHS waiting times. You won’t receive a diagnosis at a private ultrasound scan – it’s important that you discuss your scan results with your preferred healthcare professional.

An ultrasound scan is an important part of a diagnosis journey, but cannot diagnose or rule out conditions in isolation. You may also require blood tests, physical examinations and other imaging types to reach a final diagnosis. An ultrasound scan is often used in the early stages of diagnosis to inform your next steps.

What can an ultrasound scan diagnose?

There is a huge range of conditions that ultrasound can diagnose or rule out. In this article, we’ll look at common conditions that can be diagnosed with an Upper Abdominal and Pelvic Scan. Ultrasound scans can diagnose and rule out conditions such as cancer by showing abnormalities in the structures of the body.

Gallbladder problems

Gallbladder issues are one of the medical conditions that can be diagnosed via upper abdominal ultrasound. Ultrasound can diagnose:

  • Gallstones
    Gallstones are solid lumps that form from bile, which is made in the liver to digest fat and stored in the gallbladder. Gallstones are now estimated to affect 10 to 15% of the population. Gallstones only cause problems if they move from the gallbladder into the bile ducts (tubes that lead from the gallbladder and the intestine). If they become lodged in the duct this can cause inflammation (known as cholecystitis) and pain called biliary colic - which can be excruciating.

  • Gall bladder polyps
    These can cause similar symptoms to gallstones. They are concerning as they can lead to gallbladder cancer if left untreated.

  • Gallbladder cancer
    Ultrasound can detect gallbladder cancer by locating abnormalities. Cancer of the gallbladder is rare but more common in people who have gallstones or gallbladder polyps. Symptoms include: feeling sick, pain in the upper right abdominal area and yellow skin and whites of the eyes.

Kidney problems

Your kidneys are important organs as they remove waste from the bloodstream, as well as excess water and they also help to regulate blood pressure. Ultrasound can help identify various kidney problems including:

  • Kidney stones
    These are crystals that form in the kidneys. Most are passed out in urine, but larger kidney stones can get stuck in the kidneys or block the tubes running from the kidneys to the bladder. This can cause intense pain in the back, side, or groin (known as renal colic). More than 1 in 10 people are affected by kidney stones.

  • Kidney cancer
    Ultrasound can detect kidney cancer, which is now the eighth most common cancer in adults. Symptoms may include a lump or swelling in the kidney area, constant pain below the ribs and blood in the urine.

Pancreatic problems

The pancreas controls important enzymes and hormones needed for digestion, including insulin to regulate blood sugar. An ultrasound scan can reveal various problems with the pancreas including:

  • Acute pancreatitis
    This is a short term but serious inflammation of the pancreas. The symptoms include severe, sudden pain in the middle of the abdomen, nausea and vomiting and diarrhoea. It's often linked to gallstones and drinking alcohol.

  • Chronic pancreatitis
    The pancreas becomes permanently inflamed and causes repeated attacks of stomach pains. It's most common in middle-aged men aged 45 to 54. Excessive alcohol intake is the cause in 70% of cases.

  • Pancreatic cancer
    Ultrasound can detect pancreatic cancer, usually alongside blood tests and CT scans. Symptoms are typically vague and include unexplained weight loss, tummy pain and loss of appetite, jaundice, nausea and recently diagnosed diabetes.

Liver problems

Your liver is the biggest solid organ in the body and has many important functions including converting food to energy, storing iron and mobilising macrophage cells (large white blood cells which ingest foreign bodies and fight off infections).

An ultrasound scan can detect scarring and other abnormalities of the liver including:

  • Cirrhosis
    Cirrhosis is long-term damage to the liver including scarring and fibrosis. There are many causes including alcohol abuse and hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). Early symptoms include weight loss, feeling sick and tenderness or pain in the liver area. Later symptoms include intense itching of the skin, swelling of the abdomen and dark urine. Ultrasound is one of the tests that can help diagnose cirrhosis, others include CT scans and MRI scans.

  • Liver cancer

    Ultrasound can detect liver cancer. Symptoms can vary and include the whites of your eyes turning yellow, unexplained weight loss, lack of energy and loss of appetite.

Prostate problems

The prostate gland is a small walnut-shaped gland, which surrounds the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body). Ultrasound is one of the tests used to assess the health of your prostate. Problems which affect the prostate include:

  • Enlargement of the prostate
    A third of men over 50 have an enlarged prostate gland. Symptoms include urinary frequency, needing to pass urine at night and difficulties stopping and starting urinating.

  • Prostatitis
    This is where the prostate becomes swollen and inflamed and is sometimes caused by a bacterial infection.

  • Prostate cancer
    Ultrasound can detect prostate cancer. This is the most common type of cancer in men and 40,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. Symptoms are similar to benign prostate enlargement.

Upper Abdominal and Pelvic problems can be very worrying. It's always best to get checked out by your GP as soon as possible if you are worried about any pain, swelling, discomfort or other symptoms of any of these conditions. If it turns out to be nothing serious, you can get it sorted quickly. And if it turns out to be a more serious condition, the quicker the diagnosis and the sooner treatment starts the better.