The ovaries are many women’s unsung heroes. They not only make the estrogen that keeps your body and brain going, but they also house the eggs that form your baby’s “better half.” Month after month and year after year, they do their job without even a pat on the back or a nod of appreciation. Unless a problem arises (a cyst forms, they stop releasing an egg, or they prematurely run out of their supply), no one pays them much mind.
Therefore, when a woman is having her uterus removed (medically termed a hysterectomy) and the question “Do you want to take or keep your ovaries?” is posed, many of us are not sure what to do. Unlike the “milk and sugar?” question, this isn’t something you’re asked on a daily basis. If you do find yourself straddling the in or out line, here are some pointers to help you make the “ovary in” or “ovary out” decision when you are planning to undergo a hysterectomy.
Think of the ovaries as a professional athlete. They peak in their 20s. After that, things start to go downhill. However, most don’t really hit retirement age until their late 40s. The ovaries hang on for even a bit longer and are producing estrogen and eggs until menopause. After this, things start to change. The estrogen production drops significantly (#helloHOTflashes), and ovulation ends.
The ovaries enter retirement; they are ready to sit back with a good book and watch the sunset. They seemingly aren’t doing a whole lot. But what their presence perpetuates is the possibility of ovarian cancer. If they stay in, there you are, at risk. And while the risk of ovarian cancer in the general population is about 1 in 70, most ovarian cancers are pretty good at hide and seek. They are often not detected until they have reached an advanced stage. This makes them a formidable foe and nobody we women want to mess with.
While the ovaries occasionally play the bad guy role, most of the time they are doing a lot of good, particularly for women who are peri-menopausal. Therefore, taking them out (medically termed an oophorectomy) may cause problems before natural menopause occurs. Issues like heart disease, osteoporosis, and cognitive impairment occur more frequently in women who experience premature surgical menopause (a.k.a. the ovaries come out before they have stopped functioning).
Even after the ovaries have taken their last bow (no more eggs and no more estrogen), they continue to produce hormones (specifically, testosterone) that are important to the postmenopausal body. Therefore, while we used to lump an oophorectomy in with a hysterectomy (sort of like peanut butter and jelly), that’s no longer the case. While removing the ovaries can eliminate your risk of ovarian cancer, it can also add to your risk of other diseases.
Bottom line, before you sign on the dotted line, you should know what you’re taking out—and why. We love widely televised debates as much as the next gal, but the ovarian preservation conversation should be between you and your GYN surgeon. He or she knows your medical history, your family history, and your risk factors for developing cancer better than anyone else. Together, you can create a pretty comprehensive pros and cons list for keeping or taking the ovaries out. Make sure to hash this one out with your doctor before you take anything out. While your vote is important, this is one decision that shouldn’t be made alone.