Ovarian Cysts

Most women in my family have had female problems such as ovarian cancer and cysts. I hear they are hereditary. Are there any ways that I can decrease my chance of this or are there any signs that I should look for to catch mine before they get out of hand?

There is an important difference between benign ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer. (Please see the archived response on ovarian cancer for a summary of risks, symptoms, and treatment.) Cysts, unlike ovarian cancer, are quite common and may not need to be removed at all. They are most frequently found in women of reproductive age, and most disappear with no treatment. Many women develop cysts at specific times during their menstrual cycle, and these cysts come and go with each cycle. But it is important for any cyst to be evaluated by a doctor or health care provider. Although most are benign, the few that are malignant can be very dangerous.

Symptoms of ovarian cysts may include abdominal swelling, pain during intercourse, or irregular menstrual cycles. Small cysts may not present symptoms at all. For this reason it is important that a woman get a pelvic exam during her annual visit to the gynecologist. This is especially true for women who have a history of ovarian cancer in their family. Early detection of a malignant cyst is crucial! If a woman has a family history of ovarian cancer and has her own history of benign ovarian cysts, she should let her doctor know this, and have the status of her cysts closely monitored.

If or when a woman's doctor discovers an ovarian cyst, her/his first line of treatment will probably be to simply wait, as many cysts disappear within two menstrual cycles. If the cyst does not disappear or the doctor has reason for concern, such as family history of cancer, s/he might scan the ovary with an ultrasound or explore the ovary with a laparoscopy. This last method is a procedure that involves viewing the ovary through a lens attached to the end of a long tube inserted through a small cut in the abdomen. The only way in which a doctor can be certain that a cyst is benign is through surgical removal, which is avoided unless completely necessary.

If the cyst is particularly large, has resulted in a twisted ovary, is interfering with normal reproductive or pelvic functioning or is causing persistent discomfort, it may be removed surgically. Laparoscopy may also be used to drain or remove a cyst that is causing a woman problems. Sometimes birth control pills are used to treat cysts that are related to hormonal fluctuation. Hormone therapy acts to shrink the cyst, and prevent the growth of new cysts.

Ovarian cysts are not always cause for alarm, but they should be diagnosed. If a woman is experiencing pelvic pain, she should consult a doctor as the pain may be related to various conditions besides ovarian cysts.

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