The ovaries are two small organs that are about the size and shape of a standard almond. While small in size, the ovaries are two of the most important organs in a woman’s body. They are responsible for storing and producing eggs, known as ova, and they synthesize the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Those two hormones play an intrinsic role in physical development and health throughout a person’s life.
Much like any other organ, the ovaries can succumb to certain health issues. Ovarian cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, and while cases have been going down over the past few years, it still ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women. It can be easy to mistake ovarian tumors for ovarian cysts. Read on to learn more about ovarian cysts vs ovarian cancer and the potential connection.
What is Ovarian Cancer?
Ovarian cancer refers to any cancer that originates in the cells of the ovaries. Due to genetic defects, cells in the ovaries may begin to multiply rapidly. As these cells continue to grow, they eventually form masses, known as tumors, on the ovaries. This can potentially disrupt the ovaries’ functions. Left to its own devices, an ovarian tumor will continue to grow larger, potentially spreading into nearby organs. Cancerous cells can also break away, travel through the bloodstream, and attach to tissues or organs farther away from the ovaries. This spread is known as metastasis.
Ovaries typically comprise three main types of cells: epithelial, stromal, and germ cells. The vast majority of ovarian cancer cases (about 85 to 90 percent) comprise malignant epithelial tumors. The epithelial cells make up the outer surface of the ovaries. Stromal cells make up the structure of each ovary and are responsible for producing estrogen and progesterone. Stromal tumors make up less than 1 percent of ovarian cancer cases. Germ cells are responsible for producing eggs. Germ cell tumors comprise less than 2 percent of ovarian cancer cases.
Growths on the ovaries can potentially be benign, meaning they are mostly harmless and will not grow or spread to other organs. Benign growths typically will not contribute to health problems. However, other growths may be cancerous or malignant, meaning they will grow and spread. Tumors can also be borderline, meaning they have a low potential of becoming malignant.
What is an Ovarian Cyst?
Ovarian cysts comprise pockets of fluid that form on the ovaries. They are fairly common, and most women will develop ovarian cysts at some point in their lives. Cysts are typically harmless and present little to no pain or discomfort. Most actually disappear without any treatment or intervention.
Ovarian cysts usually line up with natural menstrual cycles. During menstruation, the ovaries develop follicles, which are functional cyst-like structures that contain estrogen and progesterone. Among other things, these hormones help to release and develop the egg and promote conception. The follicle eventually bursts, releasing the egg.
Follicular cysts develop when the follicle continues to grow instead of bursting or releasing its egg. Other times, the follicle will successfully release the egg and begin producing estrogen and progesterone. At this point, the follicle is known as a corpus luteum. Sometimes, fluid collects in the follicle, causing the corpus luteum to become a functional cyst. Follicular cysts and corpus luteum cysts are known as functional cysts.
Similarities Between Ovarian Cancer and Ovarian Cysts
The main similarity between ovarian cancer and ovarian cysts is the potential symptoms (and lack thereof). In its early stages, ovarian cancer typically does not present any noticeable signs of ovarian cancer. Signs and ovarian cancer symptoms only really develop once the cancer has grown or spread to other areas in the abdomen. Similarly, ovarian cysts don’t typically present any symptoms.
When ovarian cancer and cysts do present with symptoms, they can be surprisingly similar. The overlapping symptoms between the two include:
- Pain or discomfort in the abdomen
- Pain when having sex
- Menstrual irregularities, including heavier bleeding or irregular bleeding
- Urinary issues, including peeing more frequently or with increased urgency
With ovarian cysts, these symptoms are more likely to appear when the simple cyst is larger.
Differences Between Ovarian Cancer and Ovarian Cysts
Aside from the above common symptoms, ovarian cancer and ovarian cysts are largely different in how they operate and present themselves. We share the difference between ovarian cancer and ovarian cysts below.
The two have completely different structures. As mentioned, ovarian cysts are pockets of tissue or cells filled with fluid. Ovarian tumors are solid masses of cells.
While there is certainly overlap in the most common symptoms, other symptoms of ovarian cysts and cancer can quickly diverge. An ovarian cyst that has ruptured or become twisted will cause fever, sharp abdominal pains, nausea, and vomiting. Aside from the abdominal pains, none of these symptoms are present with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer may lead to constipation, an upset stomach, and sudden weight loss with abdominal swelling, none of which are typical with an ovarian cyst. The sudden growth of body and facial hair is also more common with ovarian cysts than tumors.
Ovarian cysts generally do not require treatment. Without intervention or ovarian cancer treatment options, ovarian cysts will usually go away on their own after two to three menstrual cycles. In some cases, your doctor may recommend the use of hormonal contraceptives, which may prevent recurring cysts, though they are not known to shrink existing cysts. You may require a surgical removal for larger cysts or cysts that have ruptured or twisted.
Ovarian tumors will not go away on their own. They require extensive treatment, which may involve surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or hormone therapy, among other forms of treatment. Your exact treatment will depend on the type of ovarian cancer involved, the cancer’s stage, and your own health and personal needs.
Telling the Difference Between Ovarian Cyst and Ovarian Cancer
A doctor can properly diagnose either an ovarian cyst or an ovarian tumor. This usually starts with a pregnancy test. A pregnancy test that comes back positive when the patient is not actually pregnant may point to the presence of a corpus luteum cyst.
Your doctor will also perform a transvaginal ultrasound scan. This is an imaging technique that allows the doctor to see the size, shape, location, and even type of tissue growth on your ovaries. This is also how a doctor can determine if the mass looks fluid-filled (and thus cystic) or solid (suggesting a tumor).
If the transvaginal ultrasound scan does denote the mass as appearing solid, the doctor will perform further tests to determine if the mass is cancerous. Additional tests may include a CA 125 test, which measures the levels of a special protein known as CA 125 that is typically elevated in people with ovarian cancer. However, CA 125 tests are not conclusive in and of themselves, as elevated CA 125 levels can come from other noncancerous conditions or even normal menstruation.
Pathological Cysts and Cancer
While most ovarian cysts are categorized as functional cysts, others are considered pathological. Pathological cysts are caused by abnormal cell growth as opposed to natural menstrual cycles. Pathological cysts are less common than functional cysts, and most are still often benign. However, a small fraction of pathological cysts can become cancerous and require treatment.
Ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer are easy to mix up when going off of just symptoms alone. If you experience any of the above ovarian cancer symptoms, reach out to Immunity Therapy Center for more information!
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.