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What to Know About the Difference Between Ovarian Cysts and Ovarian Cancer

Cancer screening has always been the best way to catch cancer at the early stages or even prevent it. However, it’s still primitive. There is no regular screening test for ovarian cancer, one of the deadliest of gynecologic cancers. 

That's why it's so important to pay attention to your health and be aware of any changes, no matter how minor. We'll go over everything you need to know about ovarian cysts, cancer, and when it's time to see a doctor.

What are Ovarian Cysts?

Ovarian cysts are sac-like objects filled with a clear liquid that form in a woman's ovary each month and are normally harmless. Ovarian cysts are quite frequent and usually dissolve on their own. They grow during a woman's monthly cycle—predominantly during perimenopause and reproductive years—and are rarely malignant.

When these cysts expand in size, they can cause significant pelvic discomfort, nausea, and vomiting in the most severe cases. 

If cysts last more than a few months or grow to be larger than 5cm in diameter, it's time to contact a doctor. These cysts can induce cramping and, in rare cases, torsion, in which the ovaries twist around their ligaments, causing excruciating discomfort. Torsion, as painful as it is, is an uncommon and non-cancerous syndrome associated with ovarian cysts.

Cysts can occur in the ovary for a variety of causes that we don't fully understand. Cysts with clear fluid that do not echo on ultrasound to indicate the presence of blood, mucus, or other forms of fluid usually dissolve on their own.

What is Ovarian Cancer? 

Ovarian cancer is a broad phrase, as most cancers associated with the ovaries occur in the fallopian tubes and spread to other parts of the body. According to the National Cancer Institute, women have a 1.3 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer, but it is still relatively rare, with over 22,500 cases diagnosed each year.

Persistence is the key to distinguishing between benign cysts and ovarian cancer. Cysts that persist and continue to grow could be a sign of cancer.

Ovarian cancer has no known cause, however women who inherit the rare BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have a 30 to 40% increased risk of getting ovarian or breast cancer. Angelina Jolie had a mastectomy as well as her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in 2013 after finding she had the BRCA1 gene. Her mother died of breast cancer in 2007.

Late menopause, endometriosis, and infertility, as well as environmental and lifestyle factors including obesity, have been identified as factors that put women at a slightly increased risk.

What are the Symptoms? 

Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer are so unobvious that they are frequently missed. It could be anything from feeling full quickly, chronic bloating that won't go away, pelvic fullness and pain, or other symptoms that are typical in women, making cancer detection difficult.

More serious symptoms don't usually appear until a cyst has become very large or begun to press against other organs in the abdomen, or if the ovarian cancer has migrated to distant organs.

Ovarian cancer can cause pelvic pain, bloating, lower abdominal pressure, frequent urination, loss of appetite, constipation, irregular bleeding, diarrhea, gas, pain during sex, nauseea, and vomiting. 

How to Prevent and Treat it?

Although there is no obvious prevention or testing for ovarian cancer, researchers have discovered that taking birth control tablets reduces the risk of developing the disease. Tubal ligation (tying your tubes) or having your fallopian tubes removed has also been linked to a lower risk of ovarian cancer.

Women with ovarian cancer should be offered genetic testing since it gives critical information for them and their families, as well as additional therapy options for medications approved for those patients.

Even while patients are not recommended to undergo annual blood tests and ultrasounds to detect ovarian cancer, it’s best to start learning about your family history and paying close attention to your body and any persistent symptoms.

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