Dermoid Cysts Are Common But Very, Very Weird

by Jennifer Rosen-Heinz
Originally Published: 
Dermoid cysts
Jennifer Rosen Heinz

It started with some pangs on the left side of my abdomen. From time to time, it would ache or feel crampy, which could be totally normal. After having my kids, my periods had gotten heavier and longer, so I took these changes with a grain of salt.

Then, one evening, I got a bout of norovirus that just did not want to quit and I couldn’t stop throwing up, so my husband drove me to the ER to get some fluids and anti-nausea meds. I was also complaining of a burning sensation in my abdomen, and that worried the doctors enough to recommend an ultrasound.

The ultrasound didn’t show anything conclusive, but it did incidentally find a dermoid cyst on my ovary. Dermoid cysts aren’t terribly uncommon — they account for about 20% of all abnormal, but benign, growths of the ovaries, and are the most common ovarian growth for women under the age of 20. They tend to occur, however, during peak childbearing years, from ages 20–40.

I immediately knew what this was because my mom had them in her late 30s and early 40s before she had a hysterectomy. And if your mom had them, you’d probably remember too. Because dermoid cysts are intense.

My Little Fat Greek tumor

Unlike a normal ovarian cyst, which forms allowing the ovary to release the egg and then disappears on its own, dermoids (actually a form of teratoma tumor) just grow. The word “teratoma” comes from the Greek word for “monster.”

You know how some people call uteruses the original 3D printers? Well, ovaries are little powerhouses that are packed to the rafters with immature eggs and germ cells, which are the building blocks for tissue in the body. In some people, these little building blocks have a tendency to get rowdy and start developing “stuff”— fat, hair, skin, even little teeth, or in rare cases, eyeballs. Yes, eyeballs. (Just in case the hair and teeth didn’t totally freak you out).

Basically, it’s like a little parts factory.

Remember that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding where Aunt Voula talks about the fact that she had a twin in her neck? Yeah, that was a teratoma, which is a name for a dermoid that is elsewhere in the body. Except teratomas and dermoids are usually not twins, and they’re not even humans. They’re just sacks filled with freaky real human parts — like Chucky, but in your ovary.

I remember my mom telling me about hers — she was fascinated by them and told me that she had asked her OB-GYN to show it to her after it was removed. My mom, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman, in her most amused tone of voice, told me, “When I woke up, there it was, on a tablet. He had opened it up, and there were lots of little teeth, and a nest of red hair.” Red. Hair. GAAAAAAAAH!

I found the whole thing horrifying. Hor-ri-fy-ing. My mother’s body was making spare baby parts, without the babies! Every time I saw the old dolls she saved from her childhood, which sat on a rocking chair in her bedroom, I couldn’t help but think they were little evil part-babies.

Fast-forward to my own diagnosis. When they told me I had one, I thought, of course, of course, I do. I had always known they could be hereditary, so it was possible that I, too, would become a human factory for teeth and tiny wigs.

Just a Spoonful of Cussing Makes Anything Seem Bearable

My OB-GYN is kind of a legend in the city — many people have gone through her practice, and everyone loves her, and it’s in no small part due to the fact that she sounds exactly like a naughtier version of Mary Poppins, complete with accent, and will talk like a sailor if she’s comfortable with you. We sat down to discuss my little pet ovary, and she let me know that we would have to remove it before it got too big. If they get too big, you risk the chance of having them rupture or twist, and my god that sounds like a not-good thing to have happen.

She said to me, “So do you know about dermoids?”

“Yes,” I said, “my mom had them.”

“So you know that they can have fat, and hair, and teeth?”

I said, “Yes! I remember my mom telling me and being horrified by it. But actually, it’s going to sound creepy, but I think it’s kind of cool!”

She agreed, enthusiastically. “They AHHHR! In fact, I saved a tooth that I took out of one of the first ones that I removed. I have a human MOHLAHR that I keep in my desk drawer.”

Since my doctor was semi-retired, she no longer was taking OB patients or doing surgery, so she said a colleague of hers would do the surgery.

I had this momentary spark of puckish brilliance that I wanted to keep my cyst — in a jar. Hear me out: I don’t usually like gross things, but I am really fucking sick of male politicians telling women what we can, can’t, should, or should not do with our bodies. My state legislature jumped on the bandwagon to defund Planned Parenthood, which would be the place I would go to get diagnosed with something like this if I didn’t have private insurance or if I were economically disadvantaged. The idea that I could have one of these things and not have anywhere to turn to to get treatment makes me insanely angry, as Planned Parenthood provides so many more services than abortions, but abortions are what the right uses as an excuse to make women suffer. What if I could take my cyst with me to testify at one of these all-male hearings? Wouldn’t that be a palpable way of getting my point across?

“If the doctor removes it, do you think she will let me keep it?” I asked.

“It’s worth a shot!” she replied.

The other doctor was a little surprised by my request, but said that even though they are usually non-cancerous, they were required to send the cyst to pathology to make sure everything was okay. “Besides,” she said, “they’re kind of gross.” But if there was a tooth, she said she would do her best to ask for it to be returned to me after it was done in pathology.

Free Olga

While I’m a worrier, I also feel like there is almost nothing in life you can’t (or shouldn’t) laugh about. In a conversation with my sister, I told her that I felt like I needed to name this creepy being growing on my ovary. “It’s got to be alliterative.” Thus was born Olga the Ovary. In the coming weeks, as I told my friends the story, I worked out a picture in my head of Olga. Poor, shunned Olga. She never was as pretty as the other girls. I used Snapchat to draw pictures of her. I sent texts randomly that said “FREE OLGA!” I googled images. (Do not google unless you have a strong stomach and a morbid curiosity.) Olga would give testimony. Olga might not be welcome, but heroes rarely are. Sometimes we get the heroes we deserve, not the heroes we expect.

Jennifer Rosen Heinz

After the surgery, as soon as I awoke, my first question of my husband was, “Did they find a tooth?”

“Look at the board,” he said.

On the whiteboard in my room was written “Welcome, Jennifer,” and on top of that my husband had drawn a little happy tooth. I was elated.

Jennifer Rosen Heinz

A couple of weeks later, I went back to the surgeon just to have her recheck my healing, and she handed me a little biohazard bag with a test tube in it. Floating in some formaldehyde was a white mass. My tooth.

Jennifer Rosen Heinz

She also told me she took pictures of the cyst with her iPhone, and I oohed and aahed at my little fatty cyst, lined with blonde hair like a nest, in which the tooth — my pearl — was nestled.

Jennifer Rosen Heinz

Had I not had an accidental diagnosis, had I not had the good health care and the time and support, Olga could have burst or twisted or become infected, and caused way more trouble than she did.

Olga and I haven’t yet given testimony, but we will. Currently, she is in her bag, tucked into the back of my closet, safely. I did, however, create a Twitter account for her that I will use from time to time to troll anti-women’s health politicians. Olga, the blonde-haired, one-toothed, no-eyed ovarian cyst will live to tell a tale, no matter what.

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