Just because you’ve had an ovarian cyst, doesn’t mean you have or will develop ovarian cancer. Many women get cysts at some point during their reproductive years.
A woman’s ovaries are small — only about the size of an almond — and are located deep within the pelvis. Within the ovaries, eggs grow inside a sac or follicle. When the egg is ready, the sac opens to release the egg into the fallopian tube. After that, the sac dissolves.
If the process doesn’t go the way it should, a sac containing fluid or air can develop. This is a cyst. Cysts that form in or around the ovaries can be hard to feel and may cause only mild symptoms.
Cysts that form during the menstrual cycle are called functional cysts. There are two types of functional cysts. Follicle cysts form when the egg fails to break out of its sac. These types of cysts usually disappear on their own within one to three months. Corpus luteum cysts develop when the sac closes up after releasing the egg, allowing fluid to accumulate inside. These cysts usually last only a few weeks.
Sometimes, eggs mature in the sac but are never released. As the menstrual cycle repeats, sacs grow larger and can cause multiple cysts. This is known as polycystic ovary syndrome.
It’s less common to develop a cyst before you experience your first menstrual period or after menopause has taken place. If it does happen, your doctor may want to investigate further. It’s relatively rare, but cysts can be malignant or cancerous. Fortunately, most cysts are benign or not cancerous.
Besides functional cysts, there are other types of ovarian cysts. Cyst adenomas are liquid-filled cysts that develop from cells on the surface of the ovary. Dermoid cysts are made up of a variety of different cell types. Endometriomal cysts can develop in women who have endometriosis. This condition causes the tissue that lines the uterus to grow outside the uterus. An ovarian endometrioma can form if this tissue attaches to an ovary.
It’s possible to have an ovarian cyst and not realize it. Symptoms range from mild to severe and can include abdominal bloating and pressure, painful intercourse, and frequent urination. Some women experience menstrual irregularities, unusual hair growth, and fever. If you have these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.
When imaging tests show what appears to be an ovarian cyst, your doctor may want to test your blood for the CA-125 tumor marker. High levels may indicate the presence of ovarian cancer, can’t give a definitive answer. A biopsy is the only way to find out if a cyst or a tumor is malignant. During a biopsy, a sample of the suspicious material is extracted and examined under a microscope.
If the cyst doesn’t go away on its own, surgical removal may be an option. This can often be accomplished without damaging the ovary. There’s no known way to prevent ovarian cysts.
A tumor is a growth of abnormal tissue. Some tumors are malignant and some are not. Like ovarian cysts, ovarian tumors may cause only minor, easy-to-dismiss symptoms at first. They’re also hard to feel, even during a physical exam. That’s why it’s difficult to detect early-stage ovarian cancer.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer are similar to that of ovarian cysts and may include:
- abdominal swelling or bloating
- abdominal pressure and pain
- trouble eating or feeling overstuffed
- frequent or urgent urination
- menstrual irregularities
- painful intercourse
Report unusual symptoms or changes in your menstrual cycle to your doctor. The sooner you know what’s going on, the better. The outlook for ovarian cancer is much brighter when it’s diagnosed and treated in the early stages. According to the American Cancer Society, only about 15 percent of ovarian cancers are found in stage 1.
Ovarian cancer is rare in young women. The median age of a diagnosis is 63. A woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer is fairly low, with only 1.3 percent being diagnosed, according to the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER).