Cysts can sound scary — here’s what women need to know

Click to play video: 'What’s the difference between a skin bump and a cyst?'
What’s the difference between a skin bump and a cyst?
WATCH: What's the difference between a skin bump and a cyst? – Apr 25, 2019

Cysts can pop up anywhere on the body, but for many women, they appear in the ovaries or breasts or on the skin.

Dr. Caitlin Dunne, an infertility and egg-freezing specialist at the Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine in Vancouver, told Global News the word “cyst” itself can be confusing to some and is often viewed as a scary diagnosis.

“As doctors, when we refer to a ‘cyst,’ we mean a collection of fluid. I think many patients hear ‘cyst’ and automatically equate that with cancer,” Dunne said.

But cysts can be harmless: some of them go away, and others can be treated. Below, health experts help to break down three areas where women can get cysts.

Ovarian cysts

Dunne said the most common type of cyst is the one that happens every single month to reproductive-aged women as they ovulate.

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“When a woman grows an egg, it forms in a sac called an ‘ovarian follicle,’ two centimetres in size, and is filled with clear fluid,” she explained. “Eventually, this cyst breaks open, and the egg is released; that’s called ovulation. The leftover cyst makes an important hormone called progesterone, which is essential to maintain a pregnancy and/or cause a period.”

Credit: Laura Whelan.

But sometimes, the fluid from an ovarian follicle might hang around an extra month or two and eventually go away on its own.

“These cysts would be called physiological or ‘functional’ cysts because they are related to the normal function of the ovary,” Dunne said.

READ MORE: Parents of 2-year-old diagnosed with rare ovarian cancer focus on raising awareness

Other types of cysts are less “normal” but still not cancerous, she added.

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Endometriosis cysts (or chocolate cysts) contain old blood that looks like liquid chocolate. Dermoid cysts come from the cells of the ovary and can make any type of tissue in the body. Dunne said these cysts can contain mucus, hair and even teeth. The last type of cyst is mucinous cysts, which are mucus-filled cysts.

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“In older women, malignant (cancerous) cysts are more common but still rare overall,” she explained. “Ovarian cancers account for about four per cent of cancers among all women. However, ovarian cancer accounts for more deaths than all other gynecological cancers put together.”

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Because cancerous cysts are rare, the majority of ovarian cysts can be left alone and carefully observed over time, she added.

“That means getting a pelvic ultrasound or MRI scan every six months or so to check if the cyst is growing,” said Dunne.

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If a woman is feeling pain from a cyst, however, surgery is another option.

“Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive technique, sometimes called ‘keyhole’ surgery, because it requires only tiny (one-centimetre) incisions on the abdomen,” Dunne said. “Whenever possible, the gynecologist would try this approach because it is more comfortable for the patient and requires a lot less recovery time than a traditional long cut on the belly.”

Epidermal cysts

These types of cysts are noncancerous and can appear anywhere on the skin.

“Epidermal cysts are sacks of old skin cells under the top layer of the skin,” said Dr. Julia Carroll of Compass Dermatology in Toronto. “Sometimes, they drain out of the skin like a giant blackhead.”

However, sometimes, the dead skin cells collect under the skin with no way out, she added.

“The contents of the cyst can be quite foul-smelling,” Carroll said.

READ MORE: ‘Girls’ star Lena Dunham undergoing surgery after ovarian cyst rupture

But because of recent online movements in the beauty world involving people popping pimples, Carroll said sometimes people mistake cysts for giant zits.

“The best way to remove them is to see a doctor for surgical excision,” she explained.

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The Mayo Clinic adds that cysts are slow-growing and often painless and can appear on the face, neck or trunk.

“The surface of your skin (epidermis) is made up of a thin, protective layer of cells that your body continuously sheds. Most epidermoid cysts form when these cells move deeper into your skin and multiply rather than slough off. Sometimes, the cysts form due to irritation or injury of the skin or the most superficial portion of a hair follicle,” the site noted.

Breast cysts

Breast cysts appear in the breast tissue.

“They are the most common non-cancerous (benign) breast lumps in women between the ages of 35 and 50. Breast cysts are rarely cancerous, and they do not increase your risk for developing breast cancer,” the Canadian Cancer Society noted.

Dr. Paula Gordon, radiologist at B.C. Women’s Hospital + Health Centre, told Global News that women need to be aware of any changes in their breasts. Breasts cysts appear as a result of aging breast tissue so they can be more common as women age.

“What we want women to be aware of is what their normal breast texture is,” she said. “And if they feel any change… we want them to pay attention to it and potentially bring it to the attention of their doctor.”

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She added that if a woman notices changes in breast texture before a period, she ought to wait till after the period before visiting a doctor.

“Most women’s breasts get lumpier before a period and that can be just transient,” she explained.

“(A) lump is a broad category of stuff that you can feel,” she continued. “Within that category, there are cysts, which are fluid-filled lumps, and then there are the opposite of cysts, (which) is solid, meaning they (are) made out of tissue rather than fluid. A solid lump can be benign non-cancerous, or it can be cancer.”

READ MORE: Canadian fertility clinic reports 180% increase in elective egg freezing

The important thing to note, she added, is that you can’t tell by simply feeling your breast what type of lump you have — you need to get checked.

Cysts can come and go, Gordon said, but sometimes they can grow and get large. If a cyst becomes large and sore, doctors can use freezing medicines or thin needles to drain out the fluid.

“Not all cysts need to be drained — most don’t,” she explained. “We would only do it if it was really uncomfortable for the patient.”

Gordon stressed cysts can appear in various organs, and they are all different, depending on where they appear. Having a cyst on your liver and feeling a lump on your breast does not mean you have a cyst in your breast tissue.

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“Never self-diagnose,” she said. “If you feel a lump in your breast, get it checked.”

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