When you can’t find your keys, what do you do? Most of us go to the “hot” spots and start searching. Hot spots are those places that you usually, on most days, drop your keys: on the kitchen counter, in the hallway, hanging on a hook in the garage. By hitting those high-traffic key spots, we are pretty likely to find a match.
When looking for evidence of endometriosis, we go to those hot spots, and the ovaries are the hottest of the hot spots. Endometriosis that implants on the ovaries and forms a cyst is called an endometrioma. News flash: endometriomas and the ovaries are not friends; in fact, they are not even frenemies. They are unwelcome guests that can make the ovaries incredibly unhappy. And here’s why.
Intruders are not fun in anyone’s house. This is particularly true in the ovaries that are already dealing with a limited supply of goods (a.k.a. eggs). Endometriosis on the ovaries can range from mild (a few spots) to major (a whopping 10cm, plus a cyst). Usually, the bigger the cyst, the bigger the problem. And although this may be hard or disturbing to picture, what’s inside the cyst bears a close resemblance to chocolate. While we hope that didn’t destroy your love of everything Hershey’s, Nestle, or Godiva, that is what the brown fluid that leaks out of the cyst looks like.
And while it may look like chocolate, it’s more of an inflammatory soup; factors and mediators lurking in this fluid are not pleasant. They’re irritants. They can damage the ovary and eat away at your egg supply—as well as your quality of life. It is for this reason and others that women with endometriosis often experience infertility.
The walls of endometriomas were not built in a day. They are usually quite tough and scarred. In many cases, the ovary-plus-cyst complex is stuck like glue to surrounding abdominal organs (intestines, uterus, etc.). This can make taking them out pretty challenging. Fortunately, surgeons that specialize in endometriosis surgery have a lot of weapons in their armamentarium.
You want to make sure the good guys are fighting for you, and for this reason, make sure you vet your endo surgeon well. Unlike those keys that you couldn’t find, you can’t just get a new ovary copied. If you lose it, it is forever lost. For this reason, you want to make sure whomever you are trusting to “hold them” knows what they are doing.
The good news about endometriomas is that the hot/cold/found-it game is pretty easy. An ultrasound is pretty spot on in identifying what is likely an endometrioma and what is not. On ultrasounds, the cyst/mass will look greyish/white and solid, and it usually has a lot of blood flow. If your doctor is still on the fence about what is plaguing your ovary or needs more information before surgery, an MRI is usually their go to. With these tools in our pocket, we can decide if surgery is needed, what the best approach for surgery is, and how major the surgery will be. It is important to take good before pictures (say cheese!) prior to surgery so that you have a good idea about what the after should look like.
Unfortunately, the recurrence rate of endometriomas is pretty high, especially when the surgeon does not remove the cyst wall in its entirety. Simply draining the cyst doesn’t do all that much for you or for your chances of being cured.
Word of advice…make sure to ASK your surgeon how he or she plans to remove the endo before signing that consent form. The reason for the high recurrence rate of all things endo is that estrogen is fueling its fire. If estrogen is around, endo will grow—sort of like, if you build it they will come. It is for this reason that, for women who do not have babies on the brain (because they are not ready or they are done), we recommend shutting the reproductive system down (pills, Lupron etc.) after undergoing surgery.
Cold, hot, hotter, hottest—you found it! Endometriomas are often a pretty good giveaway for underlying endometriosis. They have no game face, and when present, you can pretty easily guess what’s causing those unpleasant symptoms. While they may not need to be treated unless causing pain or contributing to infertility, they do shed some major light on what may be hiding in the dark in your pelvis. It may be the key to what you experience in the future—make sure you know where you put it!