Scrolling through Instagram can sometimes feel like being in the diary of an overexcited tween — it’s National Hotdog Day! It’s World Strawberry-Flavored Lipgloss Week!! It’s Universal Talking to Your Girlfriends on the Phone Appreciation Month!!!! (Also, give your friendly neighborhood social media manager a break, there’s only so many times you can post a picture of Rihanna on Instagram [kidding, there isn’t]).
But *this month* is an actual thing — September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. So, we’re breaking down all the different things you can do to keep your ovaries healthy now, and in the future!
So if you’re thinking rn, remind me what ovaries do again, don’t worry — this is a judgment-free zone. Quick refresh: women have two ovaries, shaped like almonds, and they sit on either side of the uterus (this diagram is from a website for kids, I know, but it is straightforward, so I like it).
Ovaries are multitaskers: they store your eggs *and* produce the hormones you need for your reproductive cycle (aka periods and pregnancy), like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Every month after you hit puberty, your ovaries release an egg (ovulation) in the hopes that one lucky sperm has made his way up there — so plz use birth control if you aren’t trying to get preggo!
Now, why should we pay attention to our ovaries? Well, our ovaries can also be the source of some tricky-to-diagnose health issues. The more info we have, the more empowered we can be when making decisions for our own health, right? Right!
The biggie here is obviously ovarian cancer. In women aged 35 - 74, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related death. The good news? If diagnosed early and treated in early stages, the 5-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is over 90%. In a previous blog post, we spoke about genetic risk factors: There are a bunch of different things that can increase your risk of ovarian cancer, but a big one is having one or more family members who have had it or breast cancer.
If you do, you can opt for testing that tells you whether you have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genetic mutation, which can increase your risk dramatically: 39% of women who inherit a BRCA1 mutation and 11 - 17% of women who inherit a harmful BRCA2 mutation will develop ovarian cancer by 70. Luckily, there are a ton of ways you can do to reduce your risk of breast and ovarian cancer through lifestyle choices — including things like exercising, eating healthy, quitting smoking (it’s 2017, ppl!!!), and keeping those margaritas to the weekend (okay, and obvs Taco Tuesday).
So what should you look out for now, and in the future? Ovarian cancer doesn’t have a whole lot of super-obvious signs, especially when it’s in its early stages, but there are definitely things you can look out for.
- Bloating (more than what you feel just before your period, or after consuming the delivery minimum from your favorite Seamless spot)
- Pain, particularly in your pelvic or abdominal areas
- Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
- Feeling the need to pee a lot
- Other symptoms include: excessive tiredness, nausea, back pain, pain during sex, constipation, and changes during your period.
If you’re reading this and freaking out because, “This is just an average Wednesday in my body!!!”, don’t worry. While a lot of these symptoms are things that happen to women, like, a lot, especially around that time of the month, the key is to pay attention to how long these symptoms last, and if they don’t sort themselves out with the help of usual remedies (like rest, changing diet, painkillers). Bright Pink, the only national nonprofit focused on the prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women, suggests that even though these can be symptoms of regular digestive or menstrual issues, and can often be associated with benign (aka non-harmful) ovarian cysts, if you notice any of these symptoms for more than 2 - 3 weeks, go see your doctor. As always, listen to your body, and if something doesn’t feel right, it’s worth seeing a professional (particularly if you belong to a higher risk group).
So, cancer is definitely the big one. But, since it is rare in women under 40, according to the American Cancer Society, what are some other things to look out for in your ovarian region for us #millennialz?
When you ovulate, your eggs are released from the little hair-like follicles in your ovaries. But, if the eggs aren’t released, the follicles sometimes turn into cysts that usually go away on their own after a couple of months (yes, kinda like an ingrown hair). Most ovarian cysts are asymptomatic and totally normal.
But sometimes, they can grow larger and burst, and start to cause problems. In March last year, Lena Dunham was hospitalized due to complications after an ovarian cyst ruptured— requiring surgery.
An ovarian cyst might turn up at your routine gyno visit, but how do you know if an ovarian cyst has ruptured? Well, you will feel mild or super-sharp pain in the side of your lower abdomen or pelvis, probably pretty suddenly — sometimes triggered by sex or exercise. Endometriosis is also a common cause of ovarian cysts (this was the case for Lena Dunham, who has been very public about her battle with the disease), so much so they even have their own name: endometrioma.
If you think that you might have a ruptured cyst, particularly if you suffer from endometriosis, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. Treatment and recovery time depends on the severity of the rupture, but the important part is to get an accurate examination and diagnosis!
Another way cysts can be a real pain in your… ovaries, is if you are one of the approximately 10 million women worldwide who suffer from polycystic ovaries syndrome. This is a topic for a blog post (or 10) on its own, but in the meantime, s/o to all my polycystas! PCOS is a complex condition where women might (but not always, despite the name) develop ovarian cysts, along with a bunch of other symptoms, usually in late teens or twenties, including weight gain, thinning hair, lack of periods or period irregularity, infertility, acne — plus it throws your androgens, insulin, and progesterone (all hormones you need to cycle) really outta wack.
PCOS can be a difficult one to diagnose, because the symptoms are so nebulous (just check out this writer’s difficult journey to PCOS understanding), but it’s definitely worth talking to your doctor about, and finding an endocrinologist you like if you think you might be suffering from PCOS.
How are we doing? You still with me? I know, info overload. I think Bright Pink gets it right by suggesting we practice “ovarian self-awareness” — understand the signs and symptoms, listen and pay attention to what your body is telling you, be aware of your family history, and try to make the best lifestyle choices you can in this crazy 2017 world we all live in.
Let me know if you have had ovary-experiences you want to share in the comments!