Pelvic pain and ovarian cysts: Do they mean cancer?

Pelvic pain
Ovarian cysts are quite common, and the symptoms can be similar to those of ovarian cancer.

While pain is a common symptom of a woman’s period, it might seem uncommon if you’re having persistent pelvic pain. It might come every month for a few months, then stop. Or you might feel it randomly throughout the month, with no association with your period at all.

In this age of self-diagnosis, pelvic pain is just a Google search away from a cancer diagnosis. In fact, many young women who experience pain in their lower abdomen may simply have a benign ovarian cyst. Ovarian cancer is rare during a woman’s childbearing years (most women with ovarian cancer are between ages 55 to 64). But ovarian cysts are quite common, and the symptoms may be similar to those of ovarian cancer: pelvic pain, bloating, back pain and nausea or vomiting. Learn about ovarian cancer survival rates and results.

What’s the difference?

It’s important to know about various types of ovarian cysts and understand the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Most women with an ovarian cyst have what’s called a functional cyst, which is associated with their menstrual cycle. These types of cysts develop during or after ovulation, which is when an egg may be released for conception.

Follicular cysts form before the egg is released. They usually take one to three months to go away on their own.

Corpus luteum cysts form after the egg is released. These cysts usually go away on their own in a few weeks.

Other types of cysts include:

Endometriomas: Women with endometriosis may develop this type of cyst. With endometriosis, tissue that looks and acts like the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. Cysts may develop when the tissue attaches to the ovary.

Cystadenomas: These cysts may be filled with fluid and may become large, causing pain.

Dermoid cysts: These cysts may be filled with seemingly odd materials such as hair, teeth and other tissues. They also may become large and cause pain.

Polycystic ovaries: Many cysts form when follicles do not release their eggs on a cyclical basis.

A pelvic exam is the first step toward diagnosing ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer. During the exam, your doctor may be able to feel the cyst manually. Either way, your doctor may order an ultrasound to determine the cysts’ size, shape, location and composition before deciding next steps, which are typically either watchful waiting or surgery.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer, though vague, may be more extensive than those of ovarian cysts. Along with the symptoms shared with ovarian cysts, possible signs of ovarian cancer include:

  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • A feeling of heaviness in the lower abdomen or pelvis
  • Constipation and increased gas
  • Lack of appetite
  • Urinating more frequently

Any symptoms associated with ovarian cancer should not be ignored. But if you are younger, they should be kept in perspective. If you have experienced any of the above symptoms, pay particular attention to bloating or a swollen belly, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, as well as pelvic pain or pelvic heaviness. See your gynecologist if these occur every day for more than a few weeks.

Learn more about how men and women experience chemotherapy differently.