Ovarian cyst issues are not the most positive topic to talk about. However, as women, this is something we need to be talking about.
Over the weekend I traveled to my hometown to support my Mom while she underwent hysterectomy surgery. Her surgery was due to multiple painful complex cysts on her uterus. The surgery went well and she is at home healing for the next 6 weeks!
Her surgery came just 6 months after my own unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (a.k.a. removal of one fallopian tube and ovary) as a result of an ovarian cyst. Since then I’ve learned that this is a very common affliction many women deal with at some point in their life.
I decided to do some research into it but first I want to share with you my experience getting diagnosed and treated for a football-sized ovarian cyst in November 2017.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. The information contained in this post is what I learned from my own personal experience and researched online to learn more about it. If you have any concerns about your personal situation or suspect you have complex ovarian cysts/cancer, please seek the advice of your doctor.
My Ovarian Cyst Story
I started to suspect something was wrong in August 2017. When I was out doing errands, walking around Ottawa because I don’t own a car, I would get pain in my lower right abdomen about where you would expect your appendix to be. The pain was sudden, felt like cramping or as I described what I imagined to be an appendicitis attack, and would go away after about 5-10 minutes of inactivity. While doing errands I actually had to stop many times because it was too painful to walk.
I visited my regular doctor and she ordered an ultrasound suspecting a hernia, ovarian cyst or something else. I got the results a week later and learned I had a big 9cm (at the time of the ultrasound) cyst or tumor in my abdomen. The doctor gave me a referral to a gynecologist who specializes in these types of issues.
I was ordered another ultrasound at the specialist as well as a blood draw. I received these results two days later! According to the gynecological tests, I had a 25 x 21 x 10 cm pelvic mass (a lot bigger than my first ultrasound!) and elevated AFP (11) in my blood results for cancer screening. The mass also had features suggesting that it could be malignant cancer, though the doctor suspected it was borderline – meaning slow-growing cancer, the less scary kind. They told me it wasn’t benign…yikes!
At this point, things started to move really fast.
I was assigned a gynecologist-oncologist because of the potential of it being cancer. We began to plan for surgery to remove the tumor/cyst. The plan was to perform a laparotomy to do exploratory surgery in case it was cancer. They also wanted to save my uterus and one ovary so that I can have children in the future if I choose to do so.
The date of the surgery was November 3rd.
A few days before the surgery I had a CAT scan to look for traces of cancer that had spread if it was cancer, as well as better imagery of the tumor. The scan results suggested something different than the ultrasound diagnosis of a borderline tumor. It looked like it was a teratoma, which is a cystic mass that contains fat tissue and other material (such as hair and teeth…) that could be confused for solid cancerous masses in an ultrasound.
I underwent surgery and was cut vertically up my abdomen from the pelvic area to an inch above my belly button. They removed the mass, my fallopian tube, ovary and did an abdominal wash to test for cancer cells. I had to wait a month for these results.
The surgery was a success but a painful one! I was in the hospital for 4 days, hooked up to an IV and narcotic drip, staples up my abdomen and couldn’t walk. The first time I tried I ended up fainting. It sounds horrible but this was the worst part – life got easier over the next 4 weeks.
I slowly gained my mobility back and could comfortably wear pants again. The tumor weighed 5lbs but I lost 15lbs total from the surgery (I sadly gained this all back since)! I had no complications and healed perfectly.
When I finally got the pathology results back I learned that the CAT scan diagnosed the mass correctly. I had a massive teratoma that had grown slowly over time and I didn’t know until it was big enough to cause my symptoms. The surgeon compared it to the size of a football! The best part was it was benign and this experience was over!
Can I Prevent Ovarian Cysts?
The answer is yes and no. Most women don’t realize that around the time you menstruate you develop a cyst, known in the medical community as functional cysts. These usually get reabsorbed into the body or burst on their own. It’s all part of our natural cycle.
The problem arises when cysts don’t go away, grow to large sizes, bleed, cause pain or are cancerous (which is rare).
Ovarian Cysts and Ovarian Cancer
Because ovarian cysts have the potential of being cancerous, it is important to see your doctor right away if you experience any of the symptoms associated with it.
– Pain in the pelvic region
– Loss of appetite
– Weight loss
– Distended or full abdomen
– Changes in bowel movement
– Low energy
– Urinary urgency
– Changes in menstruation
Most ovarian cysts are not cancerous, especially during a woman’s reproductive years. Nevertheless, it is important to pay attention to your body and seek medical advice if you suspect something is wrong.
What Women Can Do
There are many things you can do to help control the formation of a complex ovarian cyst and get treated early if you’re unlucky enough to develop them.
1. Learn about your family’s medical history
Speak to the women in your family about their reproductive health and medical history. Often times the formation of complex cysts or ovarian cancer is genetic.
2. Live a healthy lifestyle
The best way to prevent disease is to live a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating whole foods and more plant-based, not smoking and regular exercise.
There is evidence to suggest that weight gain and smoking increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
There is also evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet, due to its avoidance of animal products and emphasis on nutrient-dense foods, prevents disease. Dr. Michael Gregor touches on this in his book “How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease“.
3. Regular check-ups
Don’t avoid your regular PAP tests and screening. If you suspect you have a large ovarian cyst or PCOS (Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome), talk to your doctor right away. There are often ways to manage PCOS to manage your symptoms and prevent future disease. Catching a cyst before it grows large (as in my case) can prevent invasive surgery and lower your risk of late-stage cancer.
RELATED: Sonya’s Ovarian Cyst Story
Being diagnosed with abdominal masses is scary. Until they surgically remove it they can only guess whether or not it is benign or malignant cancer. There are many ways to get support if you are going through this including family, local or online support groups.
During the days leading up to my surgery, I had a lot of questions and concerns about the chances of it being cancer and the experience of healing after the surgery. I turned to the online community known as Hystersisters for help. They are a community of women who have had a range of issues from cysts to cancer of the female reproductive system.
5. Reduce stress
There is evidence to suggest that chronic stress plays a role in the formation of disease in the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) can cause anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory impairment. We know that weight gain is a risk factor for developing ovarian cancer, so reducing stress in your life can help prevent disease.
Check out “Project You: More Than 50 Ways to Calm Down, De-Stress and Feel Great” for ideas on how to make more time to relax in your life.
6. Talk to your doctor about birth control pills
If you have PCOS or painful functional cysts, birth control pills are one method used to help control it. They work by stopping ovulation, which prevents the release of an egg so no cyst forms.
Unfortunately, you or someone you know will likely need medical intervention due to disease of the reproduction system (including ovarian cyst issues).
The best way to deal with this is to educate yourself about the symptoms and live a healthy, stress-free lifestyle.
If you get symptoms that sound like cysts or ovarian cancer, don’t hesitate to visit your doctor. The faster it is dealt with the less severe the intervention will need to be.
Share this post with anyone you think may find this useful and suggest they see their doctor right away.
I was lucky my pathology came back benign, though for a while the doctors suspected cancer. Let’s support each other and share our stories so that one day we won’t need to worry about these issues.
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