What Is the Difference Between Ovarian Cancer and an Ovarian Cyst?

Though ovarian cysts and ovarian cancer share several key symptoms, there are significant differences between the two. Firstly, ovarian cysts are fairly common, while ovarian cancer is much more rare. Just because you have an ovarian cyst does not mean you have ovarian cancer, and just because you have an ovarian tumor does not mean it is cancerous.

According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, “ovarian cysts are sacs or pockets of regular tissues or cells, and are usually filled with fluid, while cancerous ovarian tumors are solid masses of cancer cells.” In addition, most ovarian cysts are harmless and come and go as a woman goes through her menstrual cycles, while ovarian cancer requires potentially life-saving treatment in order to be eliminated.

Because the two conditions share symptoms but have different treatments and prognoses, it is important to see your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms that concern you. 

How Ovarian Cysts and Ovarian Cancer Are Diagnosed

Because ovarian cysts, like ovarian cancer, often don’t cause any symptoms until they become large, they often go undiagnosed. Sometimes, cysts are found by a gynecologist or primary care doctor during a routine exam. 

If ovarian cysts do cause symptoms, they are often very similar to those associated with ovarian cancer.

Symptoms of Both Ovarian Cysts and Ovarian Cancer

  • Abdominal pain
  •  Bloating
  • Pain with intercourse
  • Menstrual irregularities 
  • More rarely, frequent urination

If a mass is found, a doctor may perform additional tests to determine whether or not it is a cyst or a tumor. If it is a cyst, further tests will help determine what type of cyst it is and if treatment is required. If it is a tumor, additional testing will determine whether the tumor is cancerous. These tests, as outlined by OCRAhope.org, are as follows:

  • Pregnancy test: If a pregnancy test comes back positive, and the patient isn’t pregnant, it may mean presence of a corpus luteum cyst. 
  • Transvaginal ultrasound: This will let a doctor see the size, shape, location, and type of mass. A doctor may suspect an ovarian tumor, and perform additional testing, if an ultrasound indicates the mass looks solid and complex (as opposed to fluid-filled and simple), and if there is increased blood supply flowing to it. 
  • A CA125 blood test measures a protein that is often elevated in people with ovarian cancer. A doctor may perform a CA125 if a patient is considered high risk for ovarian cancer, or if the ultrasound shows characteristics of a tumor. (It’s important to note that CA125 levels can also be elevated in noncancerous conditions, like endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and pelvic inflammatory disease.)

If a tumor is suspected, a doctor will most likely refer the patient to a gynecologic oncologist, who may recommend surgery to determine if the mass is cancerous. If cancer is found, treatment options are available.

For more on ovarian cysts, ovarian cancer, and their symptoms and treatment, visit OCRAhope.org.  

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