Actress Hilary Swank has filed a lawsuit against the board of trustees of her health plan because they denied covering treatment for her ovarian cysts.
In court documents obtained by PEOPLE, the Oscar-winning actress said the trustees of the SAG-AFRA health plan “stopped allowing [her] claims for treatment of ovarian cysts” in 2015. Swank was diagnosed with ovarian cysts in 2008; around the same time, her “left ovary was destroyed and removed during emergency surgery." The documents also revealed that in 2015, Swank was “undergoing procedures to preserve her ability to conceive in the future.”
Swank addressed the matter in a lengthy post on Instagram, writing that she was “truly exhausted by the way women’s ovarian and cyclical health issues continue to be treated by health care insurance companies.” She continued, “their policies are antiquated, barbaric, and primarily view the role of women’s organs solely as a means for procreation.”
While Swank didn't reveal in her post what type of ovarian cysts she had or specify how her cysts continues to affect her health, she's in good company. Many women have ovarian cysts at some point of their lives—but most of them are harmless and might even go undetected or disappear spontaneously. “An ovarian cyst is a fluid-filled growth within or on the surface of the ovary, and there are various types,” Anita Sit, MD, vice chair in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, California, tells Health.
What are the most common types of ovarian cysts?
Most ovarian cysts develop from follicles that form on the ovaries each month as a normal part of the menstrual cycle. A follicle that keeps growing is known as a functional cyst. A follicular cyst happens when the follicle doesn’t rupture or release its egg as it should around the midpoint of the cycle, and a corpus luteum cyst occurs when fluid accumulates inside the follicle after the egg is released.
Other types of ovarian cysts aren’t related to the normal function of the menstrual cycle. These include a teratoma, which contain different kinds of tissues found in the body, such as skin and hair, and may be present from birth. An endometrioma (also known as a chocolate cyst) develops as a result of endometriosis, when endometrial tissue grows in or on the ovaries. And a cystadenoma is a cyst that forms on the outer surface of the ovary. They are all usually benign, says The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) but in rare cases, teratomas can be cancerous.
How do you know if you have an ovarian cyst?
Some cysts can cause serious symptoms. “Someone with an ovarian cyst may experience pelvic pain, abdominal pain, nausea, and sometimes vomiting,” Dr. Sit says. “They may feel bloated or heaviness in their abdomen, as if something big is growing inside.” You should seek immediate medical attention if you have sudden, severe abdominal or pelvic pain, or pain with fever and vomiting.
When is an ovarian cyst an emergency?
An ovarian cyst can rupture; typically, the fluid from inside the cyst dissipates, and there’s no need for medical intervention. But in some cases, a ruptured ovarian cyst becomes an emergency, say if the cyst is infected. Most ovarian cysts aren’t life-threatening, Dr. Sit adds, but acute care may be required if the cyst is twisting inside the abdomen (this is what causes the abdominal pain). “This twisting (called ovarian torsion) is confirmed by ultrasound. Sometimes, it may warrant emergent surgery to restore blood flow.” If blood flow is cut off and the ovary dies, it could potentially threaten fertility.
If an ovarian cyst is cancerous, it will need to be surgically removed, Dr. Sit says. Only then can doctors assess the stage and decide on the right treatment plan. Surgery may also be required if a cyst is very large or causing severe symptoms. A removal of a cyst from the ovary is called a cystectomy, while the removal of an ovary—as Swank experienced—is called an oophorectomy.
Can you prevent ovarian cysts?
No, but regular pelvic exams help ensure that ovarian changes don’t go undiagnosed. If you experience any unusual symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Swank’s experience has clearly had a lasting impact on her, and it has inspired her to help change things for the better for others. She says she hopes to be “a voice” for everyone suffering from women’s health issues and battling with insurance companies for the coverage and care they need. “It’s time we are treated fairly,” she wrote.
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