The Silent Menace

What you don't know might hurt you.

In October, the focus of the nation is on women's health, specifically breast cancer. But there's an often-overlooked women's health issue that needs attention: ovarian cysts and the possibility that they are cancerous.

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs inside or on the surface of an ovary. Many women have these cysts at some point in their lives — especially during the childbearing years — without ever knowing it. Most are harmless and cause little to no discomfort, and eventually disappear on their own within weeks or months. Unfortunately, those that don't can wreak havoc on your insides, especially when one ruptures.

There are two main types of cysts, the corpus luteum and follicular. The follicular cyst begins when the follicle containing an egg doesn't release that egg into the fallopian tube. Follicular cysts are usually harmless. The corpus luteum is the troublemaker. These occur when the egg is released, and the ruptured follicle produces quantities of both estrogen and progesterone to prepare for conception. Occasionally, though, the escape opening of the egg seals itself, and fluid begins gathering inside the follicle, expanding into a cyst.

The corpus luteum may also go away on its own, but if it does not, it can grow up to four inches, fill with blood, and twist the ovary. Then, it can rupture.

If you've ever experienced a ruptured cyst, you know how excruciating it is. Incredible abdominal pain, lower back pain, nausea, and even blacking-out can occur. It's not pretty, I can assure you.

Next time you think about skipping that annual visit to the gynecologist, read the above paragraph again, then call and make your appointment. In the meantime, here are a few signs local doctors advise to watch for:

Menstrual irregularities

Pelvic pain that may radiate to your lower back and thighs

Feeling full after eating just a few bites of food


Pressure on your bladder

Breast tenderness/swelling

Your doctor can look for cysts and monitor their growth or dissipation through the use of a sonogram, a painless, 30-minute procedure, or a pelvic ultra-sound. Or your doctor might test for a protein called CA-125, though this test is usually only performed on women who are at high risk for ovarian cancer.

Though there is no way to prevent the growth of ovarian cysts altogether, one option for reducing their development is the use of birth control pills. Taken at the right dosage, you don't ovulate. No ovulation, no cysts. But be warned; if your pills aren't strong enough, they can actually increase your odds of getting cysts. Check with your doctor about dosage and individual needs.

Women past the age of menopause can still get the cysts, and unfortunately, more often than not, when this is the case the doctor usually recommends surgery to remove them. While ovarian cancer is rare, women ages 50 to 70 are at greater risk than their younger counterparts. As with any illness, early detection is key. 

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