11 Mar, 2024

Can Ultrasound Detect Cancer? Your Complete Guide to Ultrasound for Cancer Diagnosis

If you’ve just noticed a lump in your body and are worried about the possibility of cancer, this complete guide on ultrasound for cancer will provide you with the knowledge needed to navigate the diagnostic process confidently.

Worried about a lump, or not sure which scan to get? Our friendly clinical team are here to reassure you and help you find the scan you need. You can book a consultation with them for just £50, and if you decide to go ahead with a scan we'll automatically deduct £50 from your scanning fee.

What is an ultrasound scan?

An ultrasound (also called sonography or ultrasonography) is a non-invasive imaging test that uses high-frequency sound waves and echoes to generate detailed, real-time images and videos of the body’s internal structures, including organs, muscles, and even blood vessels. 

Due to its use of sound waves instead of radiation, it is considered as safe and is often associated with pregnancy. However, ultrasound is also used to diagnose medical conditions. It is the second most used diagnostic imaging technology after X-ray [1]. Additionally, it guides physicians and surgeons during procedures such as biopsies.

The image produced by an ultrasound scan is called a sonogram.

How does an ultrasound work?

During an ultrasound, a sonographer (trained scan technician) applies a cool gel on your skin over the area to be scanned. This gel serves to ensure clear imaging by eliminating air resistance.

A small hand-held device called the ultrasound probe or transducer is placed against your skin and moved around to examine the area properly. It emits high-frequency sound waves that you can’t hear.

As sound waves penetrate your skin and travel through your body’s tissues, they bounce or echo back. The transducer receives the echoes, which a nearby computer converts to live images.

The scan should take around 15 to 30 minutes. 

So, how does an ultrasound detect anomalies in the body?

The ultrasound highlights anomalies using echogenicity. The echogenicity of a tissue simply refers to its ability to reflect sound waves relative to surrounding tissues. 

Abnormal tissues would always look different from healthy tissue on a sonogram because they have different echogenicities. 

Say a sonographer is examining the kidney; for example, the sound waves will echo back faster and with greater intensity if they hit kidney stones. The image generated will show the area more brightly than the surrounding tissues due to the varying densities. 

The more significant the density difference between two tissues, the stronger the echo that will be produced [2]. The same condition applies when the density difference is less significant. 

When people receive their sonogram, they often can’t interpret the images or tell what they are looking at.

Here’s a simple colour code guide that’ll help:

Based on echogenicity, internal structures can be grouped into anechoic (almost no sound reflects off them), hypoechoic (some sound reflects off them), and hyperechoic (most of the sound reflects off them).

  • Black represents anechoic structures such as free fluids in blood vessels and fluid-filled tissues (e.g., cysts and ascites). Fluids absorb the sound waves and reflect almost nothing to the transducer.

  • Grey represents hypoechoic structures such as solid-mass dense tissues (e.g., fibroids, tumours, and lymph nodes) that give fewer echoes than surrounding tissues. Varying grey shades indicate different densities. The more solid the surface, the greater the echo and the brighter the shade.

  • White represents hyperechoic structures (e.g., bones, stones, air, and fat calcifications). Sound waves can’t pass through them, producing stronger echoes than surrounding tissues.

It’s important, however, to rely entirely on your healthcare provider to interpret your results and communicate any next steps. 

Can an ultrasound detect cancer?

By now, you are seriously considering getting an ultrasound scan for cancer to investigate the lump, and understandably, your concerns are weighing heavily on you: Can ultrasound detect cancer? Will an ultrasound show cancer? Am I better off opting for another diagnostic test?

The ultrasound sets the stage for cancer detection. It is not as detailed as an MRI or CT scan, but a cancer ultrasound detects abnormal tissue and determines whether it is a solid-mass tumour or a fluid-filled cyst based on their different echo patterns.  

Cysts are mostly benign, meaning they are not threatening or cancerous. However, certain cancers can cause complex cysts to form. Tumours, on the other hand, are not all malignant (i.e., cancerous), but there is a significant possibility of cancer.

If an ultrasound detects a tumour, the Doppler ultrasound scan—a diagnostic test that provides real-time imaging of the speed and direction of blood flow within vessels—can help investigate further. It may be used to examine the tumour's vascular network to watch how blood flows in, around, and out. If the vascular network looks irregular, immature, and chaotic—characteristic of a malignant tumour—it may indicate the presence of cancer [4]. 

While ultrasound alone is unlikely to be used to diagnose cancer, it remains an invaluable tool for learning about a lump's characteristics (i.e., size, shape, state, and growth pattern) and guiding further diagnostic testing or treatment. 

Would an ultrasound show cancer?

Does an ultrasound show cancer? Yes! You can see cancer on ultrasound. Due to how well the ultrasound can scan fluid-filled areas of the body, it can determine whether a lump is a cyst or a tumour and identify potentially cancerous masses. However, an ultrasound can’t conclusively state that a growth is cancerous, so your healthcare provider would request additional diagnostic tests, such as an MRI or biopsy, for confirmation and further evaluation. 

An ultrasound can investigate and show cancer in different body parts, including:

What does cancer look like on an ultrasound?

Based on the quick colour guide we mentioned earlier, you may have wondered: What colour is cancer on an ultrasound? 

Cancer appears hypoechoic on a sonogram, presenting as a dark grey patch surrounded by light grey or white healthy tissues. It may also have an irregular shape with angular or asymmetrical edges. 

Not all hypoechoic mass (tumours) are cancerous, so you shouldn’t feel anxious because of the colors on your sonogram. Don’t hesitate to  share your concerns with your healthcare provider after their professional analysis of the results. 

How accurate are ultrasound scans for cancer?

The ultrasound is highly accurate for investigating the possibility of cancer without making an incision in the body or using radiation-based imaging tests, which may slightly increase a person’s cancer risk [3]. 

A study comparing cancer on pelvic ultrasound to MRI scan found that ultrasound was more accurate than MRI in predicting the tumour stage and more “clinically useful for directing adequate surgical treatment.” [5]

The ultrasound scan is a quick, affordable—much cheaper than other diagnostic tests—and accessible tool for investigating a lump for cancer. It acts as a light beam by identifying or ruling out the possibility of malignancy while also guiding the line of action.

Book a private ultrasound scan for cancer today to get a faster diagnosis. No GP referral needed. You can choose from the UK’s largest network of scanning locations (over 200+) with options near you and get a dedicated clinical team to handle all the paperwork for you.



  • Accuracy of Ultrasonography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging for Preoperative Staging of Cervical Cancer—Analysis of Patients from the Prospective Study on Total Mesometrial Resection. (2021, September 23). NCBI. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8534714/

  • Bhidé, A., & Datar, S. (n.d.). Development of Ultrasound Scanning. Harvard Business School. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.hbs.edu/ris/Publication%20Files/20-003_7d51bf0d-d94d-44de-b08f-e12ff8bc02e0.pdf

  • Grogan, S. (2023, March 27). Ultrasound Physics and Instrumentation - StatPearls. NCBI. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK570593/

  • Siemann, D. W. (2010, June 8). The Unique Characteristics of Tumor Vasculature and Preclinical Evidence for its Selective Disruption by Tumor-Vascular Disrupting Agents. NCBI. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2958232/

  • Understanding Radiation Risk from Imaging Tests. (n.d.). American Cancer Society. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/diagnosis-staging/tests/imaging-tests/understanding-radiation-risk-from-imaging-tests.html

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