An ovarian cancer diagnosis may call for surgery to remove the ovaries. The surgery, called an oophorectomy. While the surgery is relatively safe with a low complication rate, it is a serious procedure—and as with any surgery, it’s important to go in with an idea of what to expect during and after recovery.
So what does it feel like to have your ovaries removed? No two surgery experiences are the same, and Dr. Amanika Kumar, gynecologic oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, says recovery time can vary depending on the type of incision your surgery requires.Read More
Recovery time tends to be the shortest for women with small ovaries that can be removed through minimally invasive laparoscopic incisions. With laparoscopic incisions, you may be able to leave the hospital on the same day as your surgery. Pain and discomfort will likely last several days, but Dr. Kumar says most women will feel back to their normal selves in a week or two, albeit with some lingering fatigue.
“I do always tell patients that fatigue of surgery is real, and that that can last the longest,” Dr. Kumar says. Occasionally, the fatigue can last up to a month post-surgery.
If, on the other hand, your surgery requires a single, longer incision, called a laparotomy—which Dr. Kumar says is sometimes necessary to remove the ovaries safely—you can expect a slightly longer recovery time. After a laparotomy, it’s not uncommon to stay in the hospital several days, and you may experience more pain and blood loss than you would with laparoscopic incisions. These slightly more invasive incisions can take longer to heal, but Dr. Kumar says patients can still expect to feel like their normal selves within about a month. After a laparotomy, your doctors might follow a protocol called Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS), which refers to a carefully-timed series of transitions that can ease the body back into normal functions like eating and walking around. The protocol can shorten a woman’s hospital stay and ensure that the body’s normal physiology is maintained before, during, and after surgery.
In addition to pain and recovery expectations, it’s important to prepare for potential post-surgery hormone changes.
Because the ovaries are responsible for producing estrogen, progesterone, and androgens (testosterone), you may notice a few changes in how you feel without these hormones.
“Certainly the loss of androgens is important to patients,” Dr. Kumar says. Without androgen production, you may experience lower libido, along with some fatigue and a reduced sense of well-being.
When ovarian cancer is diagnosed after menopause, though—which Dr. Kumar points out is often the case—hormone changes are less extreme or noticeable. During menopause, a natural part of aging, ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone on their own. If the ovaries are removed before they’ve naturally stopped producing these hormones, women can expect to go through early menopause.
With ovarian cancer surgery, it’s just as important to openly discuss the sexual side effects as it is the recovery time and overall healing process. The sexual effects of cancer treatment are too often ignored in patient-provider communication, and avoiding these conversations can mean missing out on helpful ways to mitigate side effects and resume a healthy sex life post-treatment.