Adnexal masses are common findings in women. While the decision to operate on symptomatic adnexal masses is straightforward, the decision-making process for asymptomatic masses is more complicated. Here we address how to approach an asymptomatic adnexal mass, including how to decide when to operate, when to refer, or how to monitor.
It is important to minimize the number of surgeries for benign, asymptomatic adnexal masses because complications are reported in 2%-15% of surgeries for adnexal masses and these can range from minimal to devastating.1 In addition, unnecessary surgery is associated with a burden of cost to the health care system. Therefore, there is a paradigm shift in the management of asymptomatic adnexal masses trending toward surveillance of any masses that are likely to be benign. What becomes critical in this approach is the ability to accurately classify these masses preoperatively.
Determining the malignant potential of a mass
Guidance is provided by the ACOG Practice Bulletin Number 174, which was published in 2016: “Evaluation and Management of Adnexal Masses.”2 These guidelines remind clinicians that:
- Most adnexal masses are benign, even in postmenopausal patients.
- The recommended imaging modality is quality transvaginal ultrasonography with an ultrasonographer accredited through the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers.
- Simple cysts up to 10 cm can be monitored using repeat imaging every 6 months without surgical intervention, even in postmenopausal patients. In prospective studies, no cases of malignancy were diagnosed over 6 years of surveillance and most resolved. Those that persist are likely to be serous cystadenomas.
- Many benign lesions such as endometriomas and cystic teratomas have characteristic radiologic features. Surgery for these lesions is warranted for large size, symptoms, or growth in size.
- Ultrasound characteristics of malignant masses include:
1. Cyst size greater than 10 cm
2. Papillary or solid components
4. Internal blood flow on color Doppler.
An alternative approach that has been proposed is an ultrasound scoring system devised by International Ovarian Tumor Analysis Group. The scoring system uses 10 ultrasound findings that are characteristic of malignant and benign and is designed to characterize masses as either benign or malignant.3 This approach is able to correctly classify 77% of masses. The remaining masses with features that do not fit the “simple rules” are considered potentially malignant and should be referred to an oncology specialist for further decision making.
Decision to operate
After referral to gynecologic oncologists, surgery is not always inevitable, particularly for women with indeterminate masses. The gynecologic oncologist uses a decision-making process that factors in the underlying surgical risks for that patient with the likelihood of malignancy based on the features of the mass. The threshold to operate is higher in women with underlying major comorbidities, such as morbid obesity, complex prior surgical history, or cardiopulmonary disease. Healthier surgical candidates are more likely to be considered for a surgery, even if the suspicion for malignancy is lower. However, low surgical risk does not equate to no surgical risk. Therefore, even in apparently “good” surgical candidates, the suspicion for underlying malignancy needs to be reasonably high in order to justify the cost and risk of surgery in an asymptomatic patient. Sometimes it is patient anxiety and a desire to avoid repeated surveillance that prompts a decision to operate.