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Gynecologist consultation for young woman patient.

Ovarian cysts are benign (noncancerous) and often harmless growths that commonly occur in women during their reproductive years. Ovarian cancer is an uncommon, malignant (cancerous) tumor that originates in the cells of the ovaries.

Ovarian cysts vs. ovarian cancer

While both of these growths develop in the same organ, there are several key differences between their structures, causes and treatment options.

Ovarian cysts

An ovarian cyst features a sac-like shape that contains a semisolid or liquid substance. Many cysts develop as a byproduct of the menstrual cycle and disappear on their own without causing any symptoms. Treatment is seldom necessary. It’s possible for certain types of ovarian cysts to become cancerous, although this is uncommon.

A cyst can sometimes grow large or press against a nearby structure, potentially causing symptoms such as:

  • Pain during sex
  • A frequent urge to urinate  
  • Lower abdominal or pelvic pain that can occur intermittently or during menstruation
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Abdominal bloating and pressure

Although rare, ovarian cysts can rupture and cause intense pain that comes on suddenly. A ruptured cyst is most likely to occur after physical activity.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer results from unusual changes (mutations) in the DNA of cells in the ovaries. While the exact cause of these mutations is unclear, there are several factors that can increase a woman’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. These include:

  • Being older than 50
  • Having a family history of ovarian cancer
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having certain inherited gene changes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2 
  • Never becoming pregnant

Unlike an ovarian cyst, ovarian cancer requires prompt medical treatment. The signs of ovarian cancer are similar to those of cysts, often involving:

  • Abdominal bloating and pressure
  • A frequent urge to urinate
  • Lower abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in bowel habits, which may include constipation
  • Unexplained weight loss 

It’s important to consult with a women’s health specialist if you are experiencing possible symptoms of ovarian cancer or a cyst. It’s impossible to differentiate cancers and cysts based on symptoms alone, so an imaging procedure such as an ultrasound or CT scan is necessary to make a diagnosis.

Moffitt’s approach  

A full spectrum of diagnostics, treatment and supportive care for women with ovarian cancer is available at Moffitt Cancer Center’s world-class gynecological clinic. To rapidly connect with a Moffitt cancer specialist, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online.