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What’s the difference between ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer?

Can you have an ovarian cyst and not know it? Yes, says Bania Calero, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician—and it’s usually not a cause for concern.

“Ovarian cysts are a normal part of the female menstrual cycle,” says Dr. Calero. “They aren’t usually dangerous. Most women don’t have any symptoms and the cysts disappear on their own within a few months.”

What are ovarian cysts?

Cysts are fluid-filled sacs in the body. An ovarian cyst grows on an ovary. They’re pretty common, says Dr. Calero, and usually develop during ovulation. They sometimes develop after menopause. The most common benign (noncancerous) ovarian cysts are:

  • Follicle cysts. If you have a regular period and don’t take hormonal birth control to prevent ovulation, one of your ovaries releases an egg each month. The egg grows inside a small sac called a follicle. When the egg is fully developed, it’s released from the follicle. But sometimes, the follicle doesn’t break open and release the egg. When this happens, the follicle can grow into a cyst.

  • Corpus luteum cysts. In other cases, the egg is released from the follicle and the empty follicle shrinks into a mass of cells, known as the corpus luteum. Sometimes the empty sac doesn’t shrink, leading to a corpus luteum cyst.

Less common noncancerous ovarian cysts include:

  • Cystadenomas. Cystadenomas are filled with watery fluid and can become large.

  • Dermoids. Dermoids develop from cells you have when you’re born. They don’t usually cause any symptoms.

  • Endometriomas. Endometriomas are caused by endometriosis, a condition where the uterine lining grows outside the uterus.

Additionally, ovarian cysts can be related to:

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can cause the body to produce many cysts.

  • Ovarian cancer. Cancerous cysts are rare, but when they form, that’s called ovarian cancer. Postmenopausal women with ovarian cysts have a greater risk of ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms of ovarian cysts?

Many ovarian cysts don’t cause any symptoms. But if they become large, twist an ovary or rupture, an ovarian cyst can cause symptoms like:

  • Bloating, pain or pressure in the lower abdomen, usually on one side. The pain may come and go or feel sharp.

  • Sudden intense pain if a cyst ruptures.

  • Nausea, vomiting and pain if the cyst twists an ovary.

Less commonly, ovarian cysts can cause:

  • Pain during sex

  • Dull ache in the thighs and lower back

  • Difficulty emptying the bowel or bladder completely

  • Unexplained weight gain

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding

  • The need to urinate more frequently

  • Breast tenderness

See your health care provider if you have any of these symptoms.

Can ovarian cysts cause infertility?

In most cases, ovarian cysts don’t cause infertility. However, some conditions that cause ovarian cysts—like PCOS and endometriosis—can make it harder to get pregnant.

Ovarian cysts during pregnancy

Ovarian cysts are a normal part of pregnancy and they’re usually harmless, says Dr. Calero. But they can cause health problems if they continue to grow. If your obstetrician finds an ovarian cyst during your pregnancy, they’ll carefully monitor it to reduce the risk of complications.

Can ovarian cysts cause ovarian cancer?

Most ovarian cysts aren’t cancerous. But if you have ovarian cancer, you’ll have cancerous tumors. Again, this is rare. The risk of ovarian cancer increases in postmenopausal women.

“Benign ovarian cysts aren’t cancerous and don’t typically lead to cancer,” says Dr. Calero.

Can you prevent or treat ovarian cysts?

Ovarian cysts aren’t preventable if you ovulate. If you frequently develop ovarian cysts, your doctor may recommend hormonal birth control (like the pill or ring) to keep you from ovulating.

If you have any questions or concerns about ovarian cysts, talk to your primary care provider or obstetrician/gynecologist. While ovarian cysts usually aren’t a cause for concern, it’s important to get checked out if you have any symptoms mentioned above.

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