When it comes to women’s health, there’s a lot of misinformation on how to take care of yourself. At one point in time, doctors told women that bras caused breast cancer and that heart disease was a man’s problem. And while these myths have been debunked, there are a lot of other misconceptions, especially about the reproductive side of your body.
The ovaries work hard to make and release eggs for ovulation. They are also in charge of producing the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone. At proper levels, both hormones keep your body in good fertility and sexual health. They also play important roles in regulating the long-term health of your brain, bones, and heart. Even when your ovaries retire in menopause, they continue to pump other hormones such as testosterone.
The least you can do to thank your ovaries for their hard work is to protect them from illness and infection. The first step is understanding what influences your risk for ovarian cancer. For example, a person’s age and whether they hit menopause raises their risk of ovarian cancer. You’ll also want to know what symptoms are suspicious enough to warrant a trip to the doctor.
Below, OB-GYN experts break down four common myths that people commonly assume about ovarian health.
Myth: You can only get ovarian cancer if you have a family history of it
Women with no family history can still get ovarian cancer, says Jill Purdie, MD, an OB-GYN and medical director at Pediatrix Medical Group in Atlanta. One in 78 women will get ovarian cancer in their lifetime. Those with a cancer-causing gene in their family, like BRCA1 and BRCA2, are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, making up 10 percent of cases.
Jessica Shepard, MD, an OB-GYN and director of minimally invasive gynecology at the University of Chicago Illinois, says age is likely the reason someone is diagnosed with ovarian cancer without a genetic predisposition. Half of the diagnoses happen in women 63 years and older.
Myth: Ovarian cancer is inevitable
Ovarian cancer has no cure, but there are ways to lower your risk. One method is birth control pills. Women who take oral contraceptives have a 30 to 50 percent lower risk of ovarian cancer compared to women who have never used them, according to the National Cancer Institute. What’s more, birth control’s protective effects last up to 30 years after a woman stops taking pills.
Managing your weight reduces the chances of developing ovarian cancer in the future, says Shepard. The extra fat tissue secretes more estrogen in the body, which can help cancer cells grow and multiply. But when you exercise, it boosts the function of immune cells that act as first responders against cancer cells. Research shows a preventative effect on ovarian cancer when people undergo at least two hours of moderate exercise (like brisk walking) per week and less than three hours of sitting per day.
Having children and breastfeeding also reduces the risk of ovarian cancer. Scientists don’t fully understand yet why pregnancy is protective against ovarian cancer, but some explanations are that you ovulate less when you’re expecting and hormones shift towards a decrease in estrogen and an increase in progesterone levels. Progesterone promotes cell death among defective cells that could turn cancerous.
Myth: Your annual pap smear checks for ovarian cancer
Pap smears look for cervical cancer by checking for abnormal cells in the cervix that could become cancerous. There is no official screening tool for ovarian cancer.
Shepard says doctors use a series of tests and surgery to get a proper diagnosis. For example, if a doctor suspected a possible ovarian tumor, they might do a pelvic exam to look for a mass, followed by imaging and bloodwork to screen for cancer-associated biomarkers.
Since your doctor will only perform these tests if they suspect a tumor, monitor any unusual symptoms. One of the early signs of ovarian cancer is pain in the pelvis and lower back. The mass on the ovary can also push onto the urinary system, compressing your bladder and creating a feeling of having to urinate constantly.
Another early symptom Shepard sees in patients with ovarian cancer is appetite loss and dramatic weight loss. As the tumor grows, it pushes onto other organs and builds pressure in the stomach, which the body interprets as feeling full.
Myth: Finding an ovarian cyst means you have ovarian cancer
Don’t worry too much if your doctor finds a cyst, says Purdie. Ovarian cysts are common and most are benign. “Anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of women will have an ovarian cyst in their lifetime.”
Ovarian cysts are fluid-filled sacs that show up because of hormone changes during ovulation. Since menstruating people ovulate once a month, cysts show up and usually go away on their own after the menstrual cycle or after pregnancy. People might need surgery if the cyst is causing significant pain, grows quickly, or has an abnormal appearance on an imaging scan. But most of the time, ovarian cysts come and go, leaving behind no symptoms.
As long as you have ovaries, you can develop a cyst at any age. That means you can get ovarian cysts after menopause, though it is less common.
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