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Ovarian Cysts: Incredibly Common Yet Somehow a Mystery
05.18.17

The female body is a temple of strange worship.

From irregular periods to UTIs, our post-puberty years are perplexing, a spelunking mission to unearth all the subterranean treasures of womanhood. Our bodies hold the keys to the mystery of life and sometimes it feels like they won’t shut up about it (here’s a menstrual migraine; remember, I exist!) throwing all manner of self-congratulatory parades to celebrate their achievements. And fair enough: props to the uterus, the ovaries, those neglected fallopian tubes — they deserve it.

The latest discovery in my own reproductive smorgasbord is the ovarian cyst. In the past six months, I’ve had two ruptures: the first during sex, which resulted in muffled screaming on the floor of my boyfriend’s parents’ basement as he hovered over me in just a T-shirt, under the adorably mistaken impression that his penis had somehow punctured a kidney; the second after horseback riding. To the uninitiated, an ovarian cyst rupture feels a bit like a puppy is using your ovary as a chew toy. It is a sudden, wild pain. Just like an orgasm, you’ll know it when you feel it.

These small, fluid-filled sacs develop during the course of a period, and are incredibly common. It’s estimated that almost all women who menstruate will have one or more asymptomatic cysts over the course of their lifetime. Most are functional, formed as part of a menstrual misfire: either the ovarian follicle that usually breaks open to release an egg fails to do so (the resulting fluid forms a follicular cyst), or the follicle doesn’t dissolve after releasing the egg, causing additional fluid build-up that then becomes a corpus luteum cyst. (Other cysts, including growths on the outside of the ovaries or excess endometrial tissue cysts, are less widespread.)

Most women won’t know they have a cyst unless it has grown to a size where it is causing secondary issues, such as bloating or pain during sex, or if it is discovered during a routine pelvic exam or ultrasound. They typically dissolve on their own. Sometimes, however, they cause an ovarian torsion that can cut off blood supply to the ovary (very bad) or a sudden rupture (also very bad) resulting in severe pelvic pain (see above) and/or infection.

While one or two small cysts is nothing to worry about, multiple instances can be a sign of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an androgen imbalance that not only causes many cysts to grow each cycle, but also irregular periods, excess body hair, acne, weight gain and potential fertility issues. PCOS usually needs to be managed with medication.

Unfortunately, because women’s health research is perpetually underfunded, ovarian cysts are subject to the same generalized medical *shrug* that accompanies PMS or irregular cycles. If you’ve struggled with cysts, you’ve likely been given the following advice: go on birth control to regulate hormone levels, exercise, eat “a balanced diet.” My own primary-care doctor told me I had “highly follicular ovaries” and sent me on my way, a uniquely frustrating experience. I don’t relish the thought of another rupture, but more importantly (more humiliatingly, or vulnerably, or shamefully), I want to start a family soon, and at the ripe old age of 33 (near geriatric, in baby-making years), I’m extra cautious when it comes to health issues related to fertility.

As such, I went to see Tiffany Wyse ND RH, a naturopath and doula in Toronto. “While ovarian cysts are not uncommon, they are definitely something that has become more prolific in recent times,” she said. When it comes to reproductive health, she advocates a deeper intimacy with your body and cycle through methods such as a period journal or app, and believes in treating cysts holistically, as a potential symptom of overall health.

(Important: If you think you might be suffering from ovarian cysts, go see a doctor! The following suggestions are all rooted in traditional healing, but talk to a medical professional before beginning any alternative treatments if you’re concerned.)

Insulin regulation. Increased insulin production has been linked to a disruption in fertility hormones. Wyse advocates regulating your blood sugar through diet and exercise, namely by avoiding refined carbs and sugars. Try small, regular meals throughout the day that are high in protein and healthy fats (avocado, nuts, full-fat dairy).

Liver stimulation. Your liver is responsible for eliminating junk from your system, and while anything that claims to help “flush” toxins is generally bunk, you can work with your liver to praise its good works. Warm water with lemon first thing in the morning is a super easy way to do this; Wyse also suggests castor oil packs, which are said to help stimulate your lymphatic system. Apply castor oil directly to your abdomen or to a warm flannel before wrapping yourself up like an adorable burrito in plastic wrap and an old shirt your shitty ex left behind. Hug a hot water bottle to your overworked ovaries and watch some Grace and Frankie.

Anti-inflammatory diet. Inflammation (caused by an excess of white blood cells) can cause auto-immune issues and other reactive conditions. Anti-inflammatory foods may help reduce pain and can signal your body to chill. Try lots of dark fruits and veggies, beans and legumes, fermented foods, and happy warming spices like turmeric and ginger.

Omega-3s. These fatty acids both reduce inflammation and assist in regulating hormones. Wyse recommended a delightfully witchy combination of flax or pumpkin seeds for the first 14 days of your cycle, followed by evening primrose and fish oil supplements for the following 14. If your cycle is irregular (like mine), you can follow the 28-day moon cycle.

I’m slowly incorporating Wyse’s advice into my lifestyle, and reaching out to all the women in my life (and on the internet, hello!) to ask if they’ll share their experiences with cysts. Ultimately, we are not defined by what our bodies can or cannot do; what feels like treachery is simply biology — ungovernable, uncooperative, miraculous all the same.

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Illustrations by Amber Vittoria; follow her on Instagram @amber_vittoria.

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  • liz

    Anyone else go through Hulk-like rage mood swings the ~5 days before your period hits? I’m talking adrenaline pumping, sweating, shaky type flashes of anger. Talked to my PCP and Psych about it, on a low dose of Prozac now (not a huge help, just makes me never want to have sex), but still curious if this is something others are dealing with.

    • Leandra Medine

      This used to happen to me — my understanding was that it was a byproduct of ovulation?

      • Jean F.

        Yeah I get that like right when I’m gearing up to ovulate–good birth control I guess(?) since I always pick ridiculous/senseless fights with my husband at those times–and then sometimes again like a few days before my period starts–keeping my blood sugar steady/eating constantly helps kind of and just trying not to plan anything important/aggravating for that totm

        but it really does interfere with life a lot still—I can’t go back on the pill because of blood clot risk but I took it for six years and it was so nice not to have the mood swings

    • Kattigans

      This happens to me a lot too and i thought I was legitimately crazy. Nope turns out its pretty common, my acupuncturist told me it happened to her too and she would always get in awful fights w/ her husband during this time early on in their relationship. For me, its more like I’m so emo. I could cry at the drop of a pin and my rage levels are so much more sensitive. I can get so moody and irritable. My bf now knows when I’m getting like this it means its PMS time. I also switched to a low dose of BC so theres less estrogen in the pills I take which really really has made a difference.

    • cuffers27

      I used to get this as a teenager (it basically stopped as soon as I went on birth control) but in the first couple of days of my period. Rage so intense I scared myself. Pretty glad that has stopped.

  • Autumn

    I had an ovarian cyst rupture in college and I thought I had appendicitis. It was the most pain I’ve ever been in.

  • K

    The naturopathic advice doesn’t sound a whole lot more helpful than the doctors recommendation to ‘eat a balanced diet’. Manrepeller seems to be doing a lot of stuff on non-conventional medicine these days and I guess I’m a bit sceptical. It’s great to have options, but what, for instance, is the actual evidence that making these diet changes is going to get rid of your ovarian cysts?

    • Emma

      I’m in medical school and I spend all day every day studying the human body and the fascinating ways that we combat disease and illness. I always get excited to read these articles but am also growing skeptical of the unfailing promotion of pseudoscience. Is medicine considered unfashionable?

      • lib

        I feel like this is an interesting point. For some reason, I also feel like searching for non-medical alternative treatments is quite common at the moment, leading almost to a sense of distrust, or at least unease, in medical science. In my own case, I wanted to research a recently proposed treatment online myself to understand the issue better (which was good but also confusing!) While I believe in the importance of making I informed decisions, I also kind of wonder why I feel the need to second guess my doctor..

        • Hello! Author here. Definitely agree that alternative treatments have become somewhat “trendy,” and not entirely sure why – I think perhaps because we’ve put such an emphasis lately on WELLNESS as a whole, which is probably some sort of dirty capitalist machine, like buying that $9 Whole Foods grapefruit can cure the flu? Idk. What I DO know is that my primary care doctor offered zero advice beyond “ovarian cysts are normal, don’t worry,” and as someone who wants to attack her health head on, that was not satisfactory. I think naturopaths and holistic health professionals can provide a more well-rounded way of approaching your own relationship to your body, and I’m all for that, as long as they aren’t recommending anything that interferes with actual science. I’m also all for the flu shot, just FYI.

          • Kattigans

            I can completely empathize with you. I’ve had ovarian cysts that have ruptured and a year and a half ago ended up having an episode of PID (pelvic inflammatory disease). PID, even more so than cysts, is even less understood. Its a horrible thing to go through &felt very similar to my experience with burst cysts. The pain is on a level that I think most people cannot even imagine unless they’ve given birth and what sucks even more is that at least with child birth theres an understood reason for why the pain is happening (hello, birthing the baby). I have a very kind, amazing gyno and even she can’t offer me much more outside of “get on birth control and stay on it” oh and also she’s advised me that when i do want to conceive its a good idea to see a reproductive specialist. My half sister has endo, and while I’m not really close to her, I know from my aunt who we share that her endo has been incredibly frustrating and painful. My 1/2 sis is also an RN so just add that to the mix too and dealing with medicine/lack of understanding is even more frustrating.

      • Kristin

        Emma, so well said.
        As a doctor, I agree, medicine at times seems unfashionable. The lesson seems to be that any placebo is better than nothing.
        As someone who has had a cyst which resulted in a torsion, I can empathize. But i do wish MR would ask for an MD opinion in these pieces (and not the parsley health center—so I guess really an evidence based opinion is what I’m looking for.

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    • birdghosts

      I can’t speak for all the advice above, but I am insulin resistant and have been trying to follow a diet rich in low GI foods and have cut out sugar and white bread and my insanely irregular shitty period (sometimes I missed it for like 3 months) has been a lot more regular (though still not a perfect 28-day cycle, but I doubt I will ever get there sans birth control).
      To me it seems that such hormonal imbalances and autoimmune disorders have become more common – or more commonly diagnosed – lately, and traditional medicine rarely has an answer. Or the answers they give will not work well for everyone. So once you find out about any such issue you have, you somehow become more receptive to alternative solutions.

      • K

        I am very on board with criticising conventional medicine for not having enough to say about many conditions that affect women. My worry is about the reliability of the alternatives. I personally am not going to invest money, time and most importantly hope in treatments not subject to the same rigorous assessment as the treatments of conventional medicine. I also worry that alternative medicine often claims too much for its treatments – I’m not saying dietary changes can’t be helpful. But my original question was: can they actually help with ovarian cysts?

        • sally

          It depends on what your priorities are, I think. When the dr tells me there is nothing we can do but bc and either way I probably have to have surgery to remove cysts, I am willing to try whatever I can to make a difference — and there is no harm in doing acupuncture, anti-inflammatory diet, changing beauty products to remove endocrine disruptiors from my life, etc. I have had great success with my cyst shrinking 2cm in 1 year. but to each, her own! for me it has been 100% worth it and western med drs have not done shit for me except get me ultrasounds.

  • Anna

    I had an ovarian cyst in 12th grade. Had the worst pain of my life, went to the ER and the doctors told me I had gas and I should go home. Next day my dad drove me to the ER again, because it was only getting worse. Doctors were like ”Oops, sorry, we thought the cyst was your BLADDER (!) because it was so big.” (btw. 10 cm). I’ve been a bit sceptic about doctors since then..

    • Sheila T.

      I have a doctor’s appointment pending (so am still unsure) but I’m pretty sure I have ovarian cysts, too. I went to an urgent care clinic and was told that I had “air bubbles in my intestine” that was causing my pain.

      • Anna

        yep. sounds kind of familiar. be sure to push them to do more tests, because the cysts can actually rupture! I was told that if they didn’t realise it at the 10 cm, it would have ruptured for sure. good luck!

    • Kattigans

      Omg this happened to me with my cyst except instead of being told it was a cyst or gas they explained that it was probably an ectopic pregnancy. Imagine my level of horror and embarrassment to hear the word “pregnancy” at 17 while my mom is standing there and didn’t even know I wasn’t a virgin. OMG. Good thing, if you can call it that, is that I was in so much pain she didn’t even care right then and there. But funny enough, after an episode of PID a year and a half ago that sent me to the ER for 6 hours, my gyno at the time told me she didn’t think I had PID and probably just had bad gas. Like excuse me lady! I could barely stand up right and walk bc of the horrible pain in my right side plus I was nauseous as hell. I switched gynos after that interaction and am lucky to have found a fantastic one.

      • Anna

        OMG! I can’t believe this is real. i laughed because it is so crazy and at the same time I’m sad that it’s possible… I’m glad we got to the right people in the end!!

  • Lib

    I have a cyst right now that has just been causing me problems and steadily growing for over 6 months. It showed up a few months after getting the Mirena IUD and so it’s apparently linked…. [insert guilty feelings about my choice of expensive birth control] Now my symptoms are pretty bad so my doctor has advised me to have it aspirated (!!!) so as to avoid torsion or a burst, but I don’t know it’s a common treatment. I’ve never heard of anyone else having this. Anyway, needless to say I am not looking forward to the procedure. Fun times!!!

    • Kattigans

      I haven’t heard of this procedure for cysts but do know that if they’re really bad or very big surgical removal is common. How they remove them I’m not sure. Given your use of the word aspirated, I assume that the removal for you involves some kind of draining of the fluid?

  • dana

    I have PCOS and have known since I was a teenager but I’m lucky because I have never had one burst and I have never experienced any pain, ever! Basically I just don’t get my period… maybe two-three times a year if I’m lucky. Birth control helped regulate my period for the first fourth months but then I stopped getting them again. My doctor told me there’s nothing I can really do about it unless I’m looking to have children and then we’d have to see if there’s any fertility issues, but for now I am just a non-menstruating woman. I have experienced a slight increase in body hair and acne but I have actually lost weight over the years instead. I’d be open to trying some natural solutions because doctors have not given me any other advice.

  • Patricia

    Was recently diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). I’m 22, had regular cycle, no acne. The one symptom that has been visible was excess body hair, which is why my GP suggested to check in with a gynaecologist. My OBGYN first refused to believe I could have PCOS, but later, an ultrasound revealed several little follicles growing on my left ovary. Blood test showed somewhat normal hormone levels, which is again odd. Now I’m on birth control for the next few years, mainly to fight the body hair – all the waxing is just too painful. I was sceptical about going on the pill – read so many forums where women complained about awful side effects, but so far I’ve been feeling great, mood seems event better than before, my skin looks nicer. Who knows, if my legs go bold, it might be the best thing ever!

  • s

    I have had many cysts in my life. The first I know about happened my sophomore year of high school, I was in science class and felt a horrific pain. I ended up in E.R. they said it was the size of a softball and I needed emergency surgery to remove it and my left ovary which was now dead from lack of blood flow.

    I have had many since, I also was told I have a “highly follicular ovary” but I am told I do not really have PCOS as I don’t exhibit any of the other symptoms whatsoever. Not sure I agree but whatever.

    From that first surgery, they decided to leave only a partial Fallopian tube….a horrible mistake on their part. Last year my husband and I decided to try for a baby and we got pregnant the first time! We were over the moon. It ended up being ectopic in that partial tube the surgeon left. I ended up needing yet another emergency surgery after being struck with horrible cramping at work.

    I have gone through a ton of trust issues with my body due to these cysts/surgeries. But I am learning to trust again. I am currently 15 weeks pregnant and our baby is in the RIGHT place 🙂 very very happy. Trying to let go of my worries little by little.

    I will say that I think diet really does play the biggest role and after that, keeping stress low for me.

  • sally

    just wanted to add my experience. i have recently been going through some awful health problems the western med drs deemed ‘inexplicable’ and when i had to have an MRI on my hip they also discovered a large ovarian cyst that looks like an endometrioma, caused by serious endometriosis. i had had a crazy heavy period for decades but never realized that was a symptom of anything wrong. they told me the cyst would only grow, maybe shrink a tiny bit if i was lucky. When I went to the gyno the nurse never even get to see the dr, thanks america!) just suggested birth control, which i had never been on in my life due to choice. in this case, i chose to go on it ot of desperation and it has given me painful symptoms that are also, of course, deemed inexplicable by my western dr. but she tells me if i am not on it my cyst will just grow and i will need surgery. in the meantime, i have been exploring as many outside the box medical options as possible. i started doing acupuncture every week, i saw a naturopath who got me on various vitamins/supplements and i began an anti inflammatory diet, as many of my sum total symptoms point to an auto immune disorder (and some consider endo to be auto immune). long story short, i have had 4 ultrasounds in 1 year and it has shrunk 2cm. unheard of! my med dr thinks it’s the bc but i know it’s the total combo of all my efforts. to all that are struggling with the limitations of western med, please take care of yourself and seek outside help. try different things and what feels right for you. do not accept that there is no solution. i have been incensed by my western med experience and it makes me sick that women are expected to take, “we don’t know” as an answer to something so common.

  • Nina Brock McGhee

    I can feel my cysts rupture usually when I cough or sneeze. It’s horrific pain but tends to subside within a couple minuets thankfully. On average, this happens 2-4 times a month, ugh! I have awful cystic acne on my jawline and the only recommendations I receive from dr’s is birth control (which has never worked for me and I feel is the culprit behind the cystic acne I developed as a teenager after starting the pill), metformin, and antibiotics. I’m beyond frustrated because I want to know WHY my body is doing this! I’m suspecting my liver but even doing all the right things for that, I’m still getting the cysts, both on my jawline and uterus. Also, I did get a hormone test done through a holistic dr and all that was determined was that I had such low progesterone, it was giving me the symptoms of estrogen dominance, even though my estrogen levels were fine. I’ve honestly given up, which isn’t like me, but I can’t keep paying different people just to hear the same recommendations. This has been an ongoing battle for years and years! Between the acne that developed on my cheeks at 17 and now the acne on my jawline, I’ve been fighting this battle for 14 years. The only time I haven’t had issues was within the first year following my pregnancies, then everything starts all over again.

    • sally

      try controlling your hormones through what you eat as well as avoiding foods stored in plastics, especially if hot. also, try changing your beauty products, toothpaste, shampoo etc to natural ones that don’t include endocrine disruptors. i am also estrogen heavy. anything is worth a shot, right?

  • Rosy Ferry

    This is such an interesting post, I’m really interested in the diet changes for one.

    Rosy | Sparkles of Light Blog
    My Instagram | Instagram

  • Emily Keyes

    So happy more people are talking about ovarian cysts. I’ve had PCOS since I was 15. While I agree that conventional Western medicine advice regarding women’s reproductive problems is often lackluster (it took me three different gynecologists before someone figured out that I even had cysts on my ovaries), I’m skeptical of the efficacy of naturopathic advice. Eating healthy and exercising regularly is blanket advice that makes everyone, regardless of their condition, feel better and a bit more in control, but ultimately, you cannot fight your body chemistry, even with food. I never regret taking the combined birth control pill and spironalactone for my condition because of the benefits and sense of normalcy they give me in my body (no acne! regular periods!), and I know this treatment works for other women suffering from ovarian cysts, too. I would hope that Manrepeller, like other sites that have covered this topic, would also be willing to connect its audience to the advice of specialists who work with women with cystic ovaries and know about such methods of treatment. I’ve read my fair share of articles and blogs about people who ‘cured’ their cysts with diet, but cystic ovaries isn’t a curable condition. It’s one that needs to be managed by you and a medical professional.