Ovarian cancer and cysts: What is the link?

In this article, we look at ovarian cysts and explain how they can sometimes develop into cancer. We also look at the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of ovarian cysts.

What are ovarian cysts?

Ovaries are part of the female reproductive system. As part of the menstrual cycle, the ovaries release an egg, or ovum, around every 28 days. This process is known as ovulation. The ovaries also produce the female sex hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that can develop in or on a person’s ovaries. The cysts are usually benign, which means they are not cancerous and often clear up without treatment.

Ovarian cysts are relatively common in people who have regular periods because small cysts can develop naturally as part of the menstrual cycle.

The ovarian cysts that develop due to regular ovulation during the menstrual cycle are known as functional ovarian cysts.

Ovarian cysts are typically not cancerous and cause no symptoms. Someone may only discover they have ovarian cysts by chance during a routine pelvic examination.

People with ovarian cysts usually experience few or no symptoms. The early stages of ovarian cancer may also cause no or only minor symptoms.

However, if an ovarian cyst is very large, ruptures, or is blocking blood supply to the ovaries, it may cause symptoms similar to later-stage ovarian cancer, such as:

  • pelvic pain, such as a dull or sharp pain in the lower abdomen
  • abdominal discomfort, such as bloating and heaviness
  • feeling full quickly and after having small amounts of food
  • loss of appetite
  • trouble emptying the bladder or the bowels
  • frequent or urgent need to urinate
  • pain during sex
  • abnormal periods, such as very heavy, very light, or irregular periods
  • fever or vomiting

Anyone who has these symptoms should see a doctor. If a person with ovarian cysts starts to experience severe, unusual, or recurring symptoms, they should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Most ovarian cysts go away on their own without medical treatment. However, a person may need treatment depending on:

  • the size and appearance of the cyst
  • their symptoms
  • whether they have been through menopause

Doctors may suggest one of the following treatment approaches:

Watchful waiting

The doctor may recommend simply keeping an eye on the cyst and waiting to see how it progresses without treatment. This may include regular pelvic ultrasounds to see if the cyst changes in size or appearance.


A doctor may sometimes recommend the birth control pill for a person with ovarian cysts. Taking the birth control pill may not reduce the size of the cyst, but may help prevent it from getting worse.


A doctor may recommend operating and removing a cyst that:

  • is very large or is growing
  • is persistent and remains after medication
  • is getting in the way of a woman’s desire to bear children
  • seems unusual
  • is causing symptoms, such as pain
  • may be malignant

Depending on the type of cyst, surgical options include:

  • Cystectomy. This procedure involves removing the cyst but not the ovary
  • Oophorectomy. This procedure involves removing the ovary along with the cyst but leaving the other ovary intact.
  • Total hysterectomy. This procedure involves removing the malignant cysts by removing the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. The person may need to have chemotherapy or radiation therapy afterward.


Ovarian cysts are relatively common and can form naturally during a person’s menstrual cycle. Most ovarian cysts are harmless, noncancerous, and usually, do not require treatment.

Ovarian cysts that form after a person has been through menopause have a slightly higher chance of becoming ovarian cancer. Anyone who has ovarian cysts and starts to experience severe, persistent, or unusual symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible.

The usual treatment approach for ovarian cysts is watchful waiting. If a cyst is causing bothersome symptoms, becomes cancerous, or is getting in the way of becoming pregnant or carrying a child, a doctor may recommend surgical removal.

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