A Complete Guide to Everything You Need to Know About Your Ovaries

September 13, 2016

It’s an unfortunate reality that most women know more about their iPhones than their own reproductive systems. In fact, only 15 percent of women over 40 are familiar with the symptoms of ovarian cancer, a staggeringly low stat given that one in 73 women are at risk for the deadly disease. When your touch screen stops working, you head to the Apple store. But what should you do if your breasts are tender or if sex is more painful than usual?

The function and health risks of the female reproductive system are complex and difficult to navigate. Your gynecologist, a great advocate of your feminine health, is unfortunately limited to the information you provide. With such a low percentage of women understanding what symptoms to look for, it’s not surprising that 80 percent of ovarian cancer cases aren’t diagnosed until stage 2 or later.

It’s time women understand how their bodies work and what warning signs to look for. Join your gynecologist as an advocate for your own health, and get to know your ovaries. A few minutes of light reading will have you navigating your reproductive health faster than you can shoot off a text.


How the Ovaries Work

The ovaries, which reside on either side of the uterus, are grape-sized hormone and egg-producing machines that keep your reproductive system healthy and happy. Whether you’re pursuing motherhood or adamantly avoiding it, your ovaries are hard at work producing estrogen and progesterone, the hormones that kick in during puberty and manage the development of your breasts, reproductive system, and womanly figure as a whole.

Once puberty hits and you begin menstruation, your ovaries begin releasing an egg every month. While the egg is on its journey down the fallopian tube — the connecting organ between the ovaries and uterus — progesterone is released to thicken the uterine lining. This process creates a comfy home for the egg as it awaits fertilization. If fertilization takes place, the uterus prevents any additional eggs from dropping by releasing even more progesterone and estrogen. The hormones then spread into the breasts and prepare the mammary glands for lactation, which leads to the tender breasts typical during pregnancy.

If fertilization doesn’t take place, the thickened uterine lining sheds via the monthly bleeding women know all too well. The monthly menstruation cycle continues until menopause begins, which causes female hormone levels to plummet. Aside from the loss of fertility, menopause introduces an entirely new set of reproductive functions and risks.


Diseases and Disorders

The female reproductive system is amazing. It directs the function of your hormonal health as well as the formation of a brand new human being. It’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring process, but it’s not without its burdens.

Osteoporosis: The countless hormonal and cell development changes throughout a female’s life create a high risk for error. As women age, their ovaries experience many changes that increase the chance of developing reproductive disorders. The most common disease a woman might face is osteoporosis. Usually associated with menopause, this disease steadily decreases bone mass, courtesy of decreasing estrogen. The two bone-managing cells, osteoclasts and osteoblasts, work together to manage bone development. As estrogen levels decrease, osteoblasts — which are responsible for creating new bone — decrease production and osteoclasts — the bone-absorbing cells — begin to consume more bone than is created, leading to brittle bones.

Watch for: Estrogen replacement therapy has shown to be an effective treatment for osteoporosis, but early detection is essential to getting ahead of bone loss. Post-menopausal women should watch for decreased height, frequent bone fractures, or back pain.

Ovarian cancer: Less common, but even more serious, is ovarian cancer. While 45 percent of women win the battle against this disease, late detection and delayed treatment cause the survival rate to drop significantly.

While the exact cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, there are many factors that point to a higher likelihood of contracting the cancer. A family history of ovarian or colon cancer greatly increases the chances, while birth control, pregnancy, and hysterectomy decrease the risk of ovarian complications.

Watch for: If you experience abdominal pain, indigestion, bloating, bleeding, or pain during intercourse, immediately consult with your gynecologist. While these symptoms seem common and harmless, they can point to ovarian cancer and should be treated with caution.

Cervical cancer: The cervix, the muscle that opens to the vagina, is covered in cells that provide protection during intercourse and childbirth. When these cells develop abnormally, the result is a cancer that affects around 13,000 women every year. Most cervical cancers are caused by the Human Papillomavirus, which is detectable and treatable. While women of all ages are susceptible to the virus and resulting cancer, women between the ages of 30 and 55 should pay special attention to their cervical health.

Watch for: Abnormal bleeding or discharge, specifically after intercourse and between periods, can be a good warning sign of cervical issues. Follow the advice of your gynecologist and receive regular Pap and HPV tests. These tests are an effective method for catching the virus and cancer early on.

Uterine Cancer: The endometrium, the lining that your uterus typically sheds during your monthly menstruation, can overdevelop, causing uterine cancer. Uterine cancer, the most common form of reproductive cancer, is not detectible via regular Pap tests. Although typically seen in menopausal women, younger women are not exempt from the possibility of uterine cancer. Endometrial abnormalities can be caused by late menopause, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

Watch for: If you experience any of the following symptoms daily for more than a few weeks, see a gynecologist immediately: bloating, pelvic pain, difficulty eating, or frequent, urgent urination. As with most reproductive diseases, early detection is essential.

Cysts and Bumps on Your Lady Parts: Lumps and bumps in your ovaries and vagina can be harmless. However, the fluid-filled sacs called ovarian cysts can occasionally develop into large masses capable of damaging the ovaries and have the potential to develop into pathological cysts.

Abnormal or pathological cysts can be painful, and in some cases are associated with polycystic ovary syndrome. While not always identified by the presence of cysts, PCOS is caused by a hormonal imbalance that can lead to weight gain, fatigue, and infertility.

Watch for: PCOS has multiple symptoms, all of which are painful and identifiable. Keep an eye out for pain in the abdomen, vagina, or low back. Bloating, breast tenderness, increased hair growth on face, back, and chest, or unusual pain during your monthly cycle can also indicate abnormalities associated with PCOS. Talk with your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms listed; it’s always better to be safe than sorry.


Keeping Your Ovaries Happy and Healthy

While your yearly gynecological exam is essential, there are many ways you can take control of your reproductive health. First, know the signs and symptoms. This guide is a great place to start, but stay up-to-date with advances in the field of reproductive health. Share your findings with your mothers, daughters, and girlfriends.

When possible, get vaccinated against HPV and receive a regular women’s wellness exam. Avoid smoking, excessive drinking, and chronic stress. Your reproductive organs require special care and attention; don’t ignore the impact your daily choices have on their health.

Just as you regularly update your iPhone, check in with the powerhouse womanly organs calling the shots behind the scenes. You have the ability to prevent life-changing illnesses in yourself and others; don’t take that responsibility lightly. Share this guide with the women in your life, and be an advocate for health in the land down under.