Ovarian cysts aren’t a new phenomenon, but they’re particularly topical at the moment after Hailey Bieber revealed her own diagnosis. “I have a cyst on my ovary the size of an apple,” she recently wrote on Instagram Stories. “I don’t have endometriosis or PCOS but I have gotten an ovarian cyst a few times and it’s never fun.
“It’s painful and achey and makes me feel nauseous and bloated and crampy and emotional,” she continued. “Anyways… I’m sure a lot of you can overly relate and understand. We got this.”
Whether you can relate to Hailey’s experience or you’re simply curious to learn more about them, we spoke to two doctors to bring you the need-to-knows about ovarian cysts.
What are ovarian cysts?
In short, fluid-filled sacs that develop on an ovary. They can develop both during menstrual cycles and post-menopause and, according to the NHS, may affect on one or both ovaries. The cause is often unknown, although they can be caused by medical conditions like endometriosis or PCOS.
“Ovarian cysts are very common, most women don’t have any symptoms at all and don’t know that they are there,” explains Dr Bella Smith, NHS GP and co-founder of The Well HQ. “The vast majority of them are benign.
“The structure of our ovaries changes over the menstrual cycle as different follicles develop and ovulation occurs,” she continues. “These ‘cyst-like’ follicles can be up to 30mm in size at different times of the menstrual cycle – and this is normal.”
Diagnosed with a scan, before the menopause an ovarian cyst is defined as having a diameter larger than 30mm, per the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (this decreases post-menopause). Dr Smith also notes that these cysts are less common for those taking the contraception pill, as this suppresses ovulation.
Though benign cysts are common, Dr Ashfaq Khan, gynaecologist & obstetrician and founder and clinical director of Harley Street Gynaecology, explains that: “Cancerous cysts tend to be more common after menopause, but there are some types which can affect a younger age group.” Two genetic mutations that indicate a higher lifetime risk of breast cancer, BRCA1 and 2, also indicate a higher risk for ovarian cancer.
What are the symptoms of an ovarian cyst?
As Dr Smith mentions, most ovarian cysts do not cause any symptoms. “Most cysts are asymptomatic and are only picked up incidentally on a scan,” she explains. “The most common symptoms for a cyst is a dull pelvic pain or a feeling of pressure in your lower abdomen or pelvis.
“If the cyst is suddenly damaged or twisted, then it may present with severe pain that comes on quickly.” The NHS says that if you experience sudden and severe pain, you should seek medical advice – either through your GP, 111, or A&E.
While most ovarian cysts are non-cancerous, it’s important to see your doctor if you experience any of the following, as they could be ovarian cancer symptoms: “More worrying symptoms that may indicate ovarian cancer would be persistent symptoms of bloating, weight loss, abdominal pain, increased frequency to pass urine, unexplained tiredness, changes to bowel habit and reduced appetite,” Dr Smith tells us.