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Cysts and Ovarian Cancer

What are ovarian cysts?

Key points

  1. An ovarian cyst is a fluid- or air-filled sac that can develop in your ovaries.
  2. Though most ovarian cysts are benign, some can be cancerous.
  3. If you have ovarian cancer, early diagnosis and treatment is essential.

Just because you’ve had an ovarian cyst or tumor doesn’t mean you have, or will develop, ovarian cancer. Many women get ovarian cysts or benign ovarian tumors at some point during their reproductive years. Most will never develop ovarian cancer.

Your ovaries are small organs located deep within your pelvis. Eggs grow inside them, within a sac or follicle. During ovulation an egg is released from its sac into one of your fallopian tubes. After that, the sac typically dissolves, but sometimes the sac can remain and fill with air or fluid to develop into a cyst. Cysts that form in or around your ovaries often go unnoticed. They may cause only mild symptoms or no noticeable symptoms at all.

It’s relatively rare, but some ovarian cysts are malignant, or cancerous. Fortunately, most are benign, or not cancerous. Your doctor’s recommended treatment plan will depend on the type of ovarian cyst or tumor that you have, as well as your symptoms. Oftentimes they won’t require any treatment.

Types of ovarian cysts

 Type 1

Cysts that form during your menstrual cycle are called functional cysts. There are two types of functional ovarian cysts: follicle and corpus luteum cysts. Follicle cysts form when an 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 a sac closes up after releasing its egg, allowing fluid to accumulate inside. These cysts usually resolve on their own in a few weeks.

Did you know?
There are many types of cysts, and most are benign.

Sometimes, eggs mature in their sacs but are never released. As your menstrual cycle repeats, the sacs may grow larger and develop into multiple cysts. This condition is known as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

There are other types of ovarian cysts and tumors too. For example:

  • Ovarian endometriomas can develop if you have endometriosis, a condition that causes the endometrial tissue lining your uterus to grow in other areas of your body. If this tissue attaches to one of your ovaries, an ovarian endometrioma can form.
  • Ovarian cystadenomas are liquid-filled cysts that develop from cells on the surface of your ovary. While most are benign, some cystadenomas are cancerous.
  • Ovarian dermoid cysts, or teratomas, are made up of a variety of different cell types. They’re a type of ovarian germ cell tumor. Usually these tumors are benign, but occasionally they can be malignant.

It’s most common for these types of benign cysts to develop during your reproductive years or after you start menstruating. It’s less common to develop an ovarian 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.

Read more: Ovarian cysts: Types, symptoms, and treatment »

Symptoms of ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer

Symptoms

It’s possible to have an ovarian cyst and not realize it. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. They can include abdominal bloating and pressure, painful intercourse, and frequent urination. Some women experience menstrual irregularities, unusual hair growth, or fevers.

Like noncancerous ovarian cysts, cancerous tumors sometimes cause no or only minor symptoms at first. They’re typically hard to feel, even during a physical exam. That’s why it’s difficult to detect early-stage ovarian cancer.

Did you know?
Not all tumors are cancerous.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer are similar to those of ovarian cysts. They can include:

  • abdominal swelling or bloating
  • abdominal pressure and pain
  • feeling overstuffed or having trouble eating
  • frequent or urgent urination
  • menstrual irregularities
  • painful intercourse

If you have symptoms associated with ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer, see your doctor as soon as possible.

How are ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer diagnosed?

Diagnosis

In some cases, you may not know that you have an ovarian cyst or tumor until your doctor detects it during a routine pelvic exam. In other cases, you might experience signs or symptoms first, which will lead to imagining studies that reveal an ovarian cyst or tumor. If you notice signs or symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor.

If your doctor suspects that you have an ovarian cyst or tumor, they will likely order imaging tests to examine your ovaries. Oftentimes imaging tests like ultrasound or MRI can determine if an ovarian cyst or tumor is benign or malignant. They may also want to test your blood for CA-125, a tumor marker, or preform a biopsy if there is any question. High levels of CA-125 may indicate the presence of ovarian cancer.

To confirm or rule out ovarian cancer, your doctor may perform a biopsy. They will collect a sample of the cyst or tumor for analysis under a microscope. This will help them determine if it’s cancerous.

Treating ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer

Treatment

In many cases, ovarian cysts resolve on their own without treatment. If you have an ovarian cyst that doesn’t go away on its own, or one that’s causing you pain, your doctor may recommend surgical removal. This can usually be accomplished without damaging your ovary or affecting fertility.

If you’re diagnosed with ovarian cancer, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • chemotherapy
  • radiation
  • surgery

There’s no known way to prevent ovarian cysts.

Outlook for ovarian cysts and cancer

Outlook

Your long-term outlook will depend on your diagnosis. Most ovarian cysts resolve within a few months, often without treatment. The outlook for ovarian cancer varies, depending on its stage and type.

It’s important to report unusual symptoms to your doctor immediately. The sooner you know what’s going on, the better. If you have ovarian cancer, your outlook will be better if it’s diagnosed and treated in its early stages.

Ovarian cancer is rare in young women. According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance, the median age of a diagnosis is 63. Your lifetime risk of developing it is about one in 75. Your risk could be higher if you have a strong family history of ovarian cancer or if you carry certain genetic mutations. Your lifetime risk of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 100.

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