If you’ve never experienced an ovarian cyst, consider yourself lucky. Although, if you have ovaries, you may very well develop an ovarian cyst at some point in your life. They’re often caused by relatively common conditions, such as hormone problems, endometriosis, pregnancy, or pelvic infections. Even if this particular type of cyst seems foreign to you, you’ve probably had cysts on other parts of your body, in which case you were probably pretty shocked if said cyst reached so much as dime-size. You likely heard that you’d just have to let it run its course, or your doctor possibly prescribed you medicine to resolve the issue. Ovarian cysts are pretty similar. It’s unlikely they’ll become that problematic — you may not even know you have one. However, they can grow much bigger than dime-size and cause a lot more pain for the person dealing with them if left untreated.
That was certainly the case for Minnesota’s Raquel Rodriguez. At just 25 years old, the woman’s abdomen distended so far that many people thought she was pregnant. After a ton of poking and prodding by medical experts, her doctor determined that Rodriguez had an ovarian cyst. By the time it was discovered, it had already caused a ton of pain, hair loss, and even weight loss, she told Today. The cyst started out as a “mere” 8 centimeters, roughly the size of a softball. Though it was causing some infections and pain, her initial doctors wrote it off. Five years later, when doctors finally removed it, they told Rodriguez the cyst weighed a whopping 10.5 pounds.
Whether you suspect you have an ovarian cyst or your doctor has already confirmed you do, you undoubtedly have a ton of questions (and might be hugging yourself in horror at Rodriguez’s painful story). Fortunately, we have answers.
How do cysts form, and what types of cysts are there?
Depending on what type of cysts you have, they can form a bit differently. The most common type of cyst is called a “functional cyst, ” which usually develops during your menstrual cycle. There are two kinds of functional cysts:
- Follicle Cysts — Basic anatomy lesson: Each month of a normal menstrual cycle, your body releases an egg that initially grows inside a tiny, fluid-filled sac. When the egg grows sufficiently, it will break open the follicle, thus releasing the egg. Sometimes, however, the follicle doesn’t break open, and this can cause a follicle cyst.
- Corpus Luteum Cysts — Continuing your anatomy lesson: Once the egg gets released from the follicle, it should shrink down into a clump of cells (corpus luteum) and start the process over again for the following month. Occasionally, however, the corpus luteum doesn’t shrink properly. Instead, it re-seals itself and begins to gather fluid. When this happens, you have a corpus luteum cyst.
There are other less common types of cysts, as well:
- Cystadenomas — Filled with watery fluids.
- Dermoid — Caused by cells that are present at birth.
- Endometriomas — Caused by endometriosis, when the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus.
How much pain can ovarian cysts cause?
Like all “injuries” or ailments, the amount of pain you experience will depend greatly on your type of cyst. Follicle and dermoid cysts usually don’t cause any pain or symptoms. Corpus luteum cysts can cause bleeding and cramping, though they typically resolve within a few weeks.
While cysts are sometimes a one-and-done deal, many women experience polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which causes their bodies to make new cysts near-constantly. Just a decade or so ago, doctors shrugged the symptoms of PCOS off as “bad cramps.” But science has proven it’s a very real and painful syndrome that can, unfortunately, leave many people with PCOS unable to conceive.
Are these cysts cancerous, or can they cause cancer?
According to WomensHealth.gov, “Malignant (cancerous) cysts are rare. They are more common in older women. Cancerous cysts are ovarian cancer. For this reason, ovarian cysts should be checked by your doctor. Most ovarian cysts are not cancerous.”
In other words, if you suspect you have an ovarian cyst but can’t get to your doctor immediately, don’t panic. While it is monumentally important to get it checked out, it’s just as important to go to your appointments and complete all annual exams so you can catch anything before it becomes a painful or dangerous issue.
So, just how big can a cyst grow?
According to Dr. Alex Robles, a board-certified OB-GYN currently studying reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Columbia University Medical College, “Ovarian cysts can get quite large. Most cysts are under 10 centimeters in size, but some can get as large as a full-term pregnancy over the years.”
Robles continues, telling Scary Mommy of some of the dangers of a cyst left unchecked. “Oversized cysts can potentially rupture inside the abdomen, leading to severe pain and heavy internal bleeding,” he says. “Some cysts can also lead to ovarian torsion, a condition in which the cyst twists around and cuts off its own blood supply and the blood supply to the ovary. Ovarian torsion is a surgical emergency.”
Other indications for surgery, says Robles, include:
- Symptomatic cyst (pain and pressure)
- Size > 10 centimeters
- A cyst that continues to grow in size
- Concern for possible cancer
The key to avoiding large cysts? There isn’t one. However, regular visits to your gynecologist and keeping up with routine procedures can go a long way in catching things before they get out of hand. Know your body and never be afraid to ask for a second opinion.
Dr. Alex Robles, a board-certified OB-GYN