Ovaries

Today, I tackle a body part upon which I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert. Had my left ovary behaved years ago, I would not be typing this today–and I would still have both ovaries. Speaking with other women, it becomes obvious very quickly that we tend to know very little about our ovaries.  Hopefully, I will shed some light on this for you today!

Where are the ovaries?  It’s safe to say we know they’re in our pelvis, but where exactly?  A good estimate is to make a triangle with with your index fingers and thumbs and place that over your pelvis with the index fingers pointing downward.  In the upper corners is about where your ovaries are.  (They tend to be a bit lower and more centralized than most assume they are.)  The ovaries are held in place by a network of ligaments which also attach to the uterus and Fallopian tubes.  The ovaries are not connected directly to the Fallopian tubes.  Many diagrams shows the fimbriae (the leafy looking parts on the far left and right below) of the Fallopian tubes as been directly adjacent to the ovaries, which leads many to believe that the ovaries are directly attached to them.  They are not.  (Read more about the relationship between the ovaries and the Fallopian tubes in the section about Fallopian tubes.)


The ovaries are, ironically, shaped like eggs but are smaller than the chicken eggs that one typically purchases at the grocery.  The ovaries are about the size of a walnut, are slightly pearl colored, and have bumpy, soft surfaces.  The ovaries are responsible for producing a variety of sex hormones.  At birth, the ovaries of a healthy baby girl contain between one and two million eggs.  By the time puberty begins, most of these have wasted away leaving about 300,000 eggs–plenty for the reproductive lifespan.  Thus, a woman has a finite number of eggs, but men have a different mechanism that continually makes sperm.  This is why women have “childbearing” years, but men can father children throughout their adult lives.

The eggs have a complicated lifespan before they are even released for potential fertilization.  The term “egg” is generic and refers to a single cell’s journey through maturation.  Before maturation, the egg is referred to as an oocyte.  Once it finishes maturing (see diagram below), it becomes an ovum and three polar bodies.  The polar bodies are actually inside of the ovum and serve to “fuel” the egg once it is fertilized continuing cell division and replication before it implants in the uterine lining (where it forms a network of blood vessels that forms the placenta and umbilical cord).

Each month, the ovaries usually release one mature egg (not one from each).  The ovaries are covered in cells called follicles and within each follicle is a single egg.  Once an egg is matured, the process of ovulation can begin.  During this time, the follicle that houses the mature egg expands and eventually ruptures forcing the egg outward.  This rupturing is completely normal–it would be abnormal for ovarian follicles to never rupture, and in fact some women can actually feel a quick pain when the rupture occurs.  The diagram below is an illustration of the ovulation process, beginning in the upper-left hand corner and going clockwise.


Following a woman’s “childbearing” years, the ovaries continue to play an important role.  For years, many doctors prescribed a surgery called a hysterectomy to remove the ovaries (as well as the uterus and Fallopian tubes) once a woman was finished having children.  This was performed to prevent cancer from developing.  However, we now know that ovarian cancer can actually develop anyway after the ovaries have been removed.  This is because the ovaries share tissue with the internal cavity that remains following a hysterectomy.  Leaving the ovaries intact provides a number of hormonal benefits throughout menopause that are difficult to replace.  Thus, the benefits of leaving the ovaries intact often outweigh the drawbacks.  (This is something that should be discussed with a physician, because each individual has a different medical history that will affect any such decision.)

There is a lot more that could be said about ovaries, but let’s save that for another day.  Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of how the ovaries work!

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The Big C: Cancer–The Disease in a Nutshell

Cancer is arguably the most feared disease in the Western world.  In America, cancer is the leading cause of death of people between 35-65 years of age.  Nearly 1 in 7 deaths worldwide in 2007 was due to cancer.  Cancer rates are exploding throughout the world as developing nations industrialize and eat diets that are less nutritious (think of pollution and McDonald’s).  Because of physiological and social reasons, gynecological cancers are some of the most lethal types of cancer in women.  To better understand gynecological cancers, let’s take a step back and get to grips with the basics of cancer.

Cancer is a disease affecting humans, and other animals, that is a result of abnormal cells growing out of control.  Cancer can happen in virtually any part of the body and there are more than 100 distinct types.  The cells in our bodies are continually regenerating.  There is a saying that our bodies completely regenerate every seven years.  (In fact, each type of cell–each part of the body– regenerates at a different pace.)  When our bodies dictate the script (DNA being the script) that causes cell reproduction, occasionally there is a typo.  Many different things (such as smoking) can cause a “typo.”  When this happens, the body has difficulty righting the mistake and it can grow out of control resulting in cancer as seen in this illustration:


The top half of the illustration is a process called apoptosis, by which a damaged cell is removed through programmed cell death.  (I jokingly think of apoptosis as telling a “bad cell” to “pop off.”)  A lack of apoptosis is when the damaged cells are not programmed out.  This is where cancer begins.

If this growth of abnormal cells is caught in an early stage, it usually can be treated easily by removing the growth.*  Stages are a means by which the cancerous growths can be classified by how far along it has progressed.  There are four main stages, and with specific types of cancers there are further subdivisions such as “Stage II-C.”  Usually by the time a cancerous growth has reached the fourth, most advanced stage it has undergone a process called metastasis.

Metastasis is when the cancer spreads from its primary site to other sites.  So, if you hear an official cancer diagnosis, it may sound something like, “metastatic breast cancer” or “metastatic cancer primary to the liver.”  This indicates where the cancer began and that it is present in other locations.  Metastasis usually occurs through the body’s lymphatic system.  That’s why one often hears about lymph nodes in relation to cancer.

There are innumerable ways in which cancer is diagnosed.  Once it is found and diagnosed, there is a great divergence between how cancer behaves and how it is best treated depending on the type of cancer, medical history, and other factors.  If you ever find yourself receiving a cancer diagnosis, you will need to create a very specific plan with your physicians–no two diagnoses are ever exactly identical.  Hopefully this brief overview of the Big C helps build your understanding of the disease if you ever find yourself in close contact with cancer.

*(In my case, I had a very slow-growing cancer.  So, even though it was not caught at all “early,” it was still in an early stage.)

The Uterus

Pound for pound, the uterus is the strongest muscle in the human body. The uterus weighs about 40 ounces (2.5 pounds; 1.1 kg) and is about the size of a pear when not pregnant. Yet, in the process of giving birth, the uterus can exert over 100 pounds of force (440 newtons). The uterus is responsible for protecting and nursing a growing fetus during a pregnancy, and also for pushing that fetus out when it’s time to give birth. Let’s further explore this great muscular feat of nature–the human uterus.

The word uterus comes from Latin meaning “womb” or “stomach.”  It is an organ particular to mammals.  The human uterus consists of two parts:  the main body, generally just called the uterus, and the narrow “neck” called the cervix (Latin for “neck”).  In humans, the uterus is labeled as simplex because it is generally a single (simple) compartment, but sometimes the uterus does not end up like this.  When a female fetus is developing in the womb, it starts out initially as an organ shaped like a V–as though the cervix has two horn-shaped compartments.  As the fetus develops, the horns will generally fused into one, “simplex” uterus.  About 6.7% of the time, though, this does not happen resulting in a malformed uterus.

The most common type of malformation is the bicornuate (or “two-horned”) uterus.   Other malformations include unicornuate (“one-horned”) uterus, double uterus (two whole, functioning uteruses), and absent uterus (where the uterus fails to develop at all).  Each of these malformations has its own set of issues, and a medical professional can help counsel a person with a malformed uterus.

The uterus consists of three main “layers,” much like the different layers of skin.  The innermost layer on the inside of the uterus is called the endometrium.  It is a temporary layer that builds up and jettisons away over the course of a menstrual cycle.  The middle layer is called the myometrium.  This is the main, muscular layer of the uterus and consists of smooth muscle mass.  The outermost layer is referred to as the perimetrium.  It is a thin membrane that secretes serous fluid.

Uterus IllustrationIn the reproductive cycle, the uterus receives the egg after it has been fertilized while traveling down the Fallopian tube (labeled here as the uterine tube).  Once the fertilized egg is in the uterus, it will usually implant in the endometrial lining of the uterus (that is normally shed when a woman has her period).  From this implantation, the uterus and the embryo form a network of blood vessels that exist only during the pregnancy.  This is called the placenta and is what the umbilical cord is attached to.

The uterus, besides being key to the reproductive cycle, is also important in the sexual response cycle.  It directs blood flow toward the pelvis and outer genitalia during sex. This directed flow of blood happens during arousal and allows for sex to be pleasurable to the woman.  The uterus is also involved in a somewhat rare type of orgasm called, of course, the uterine orgasm.

The uterus is, arguably, the most central organ to not only reproduction but also sexual response.  Take good care of your uterus and go to the gynecologist for your regular check-up!  Have questions or comments?  Let’s hear ’em.

The First Visit to the Gynecologist: A Guide (Part Two)

Finding Eve returns with Part Two of this first-timer’s guide.  (Click here for Part One.)

During your appointment:

  1. LISTEN!  You will be given a series of instructions throughout your appointment.  Things will generally be more comfortable for you if you follow them.  They may want the paper gown to open in the front or the back or the side.  They may want you sitting, standing, lying on your back.  Just pay attention and things will go much more smoothly.
  2. Be vocal.  Now that you’re getting into the stirrups and down to business, it’s up to you to make sure your doctor knows how you feel.  For example, if you have a bad back and lying a certain way hurts, let the doctor know she or he will usually be happy to accommodate.
  3. Remember your breasts.  Most, but not all, gynecologists will give your breasts a once-over to check for lumps, bumps, and irregularities.  So, be prepared for this.  This might be the most awkward you’ll feel since the doctor will be nearly face-to-face with you at this point.
  4. Be prepared for some unusual sensations.  No matter your level of comfort with your genitalia, your first appointment with the OB/GYN will be something new.  The doctor will need to insert a few things in your vagina.  It’s an unavoidably strange situation, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare, so be prepared for the following:
  • The first thing in will generally be a speculum.  This is a device that goes in to spread the vaginal walls to allow the doctor to see in.  There will be bright lights focused on your vagina to aid in this.  While the doctor looks around, she or he will also use a swab to take a sample of cells from your cervix.  You’ll barely be able to feel the swab, so don’t be too worried about it.  The swab is then sent away for testing to see if you have (pre-)cancerous cells.  This is called a Pap smear.  REMEMBER, this only tests for one type of gynecologic cancer (cervical).  Keeping track of your periods and pelvic health is your best bet for detecting other types of cancer.
  • After the swab for the Pap smear has been collected the doctor will “manipulate” your pelvis.  That is to say, it’s time for the rough and tumble part of the exam.  Really, it is not as bad as it sounds or may look in the diagram below.  (Believe me, I have had several severe pelvic surgeries and I make it through the pelvic manipulation fine.)  This, to me, is the most important part of the exam.  The doctor is using her or his hands to “see” what’s inside you and to make sure all is well.  It’s normal to grimace.  It’s not the most normal feeling, but it will soon be over!
  • Ask questions!  Generally, after the manual exam, the doctor says you can sit up.  This is your invitation to ask questions.  Since this is your first time, you should ask as many questions as you want.  Many doctors’ offices will schedule first-timers with longer appointments because they expect the patients to have more questions.  Don’t be shy.  If there is any thing that you don’t understand or have reservations about below the belt, ASK!  The doctor will be able to help explain whatever it may be, and this will put your mind at ease.

    After your appointment:

  1. Follow through!  If the doctor recommends that you take care of yourself with some therapy, medicine, or change, do it.  If it is something drastic, feel free to go to another doctor for a second opinion.  It is your body, after all.
  2. If you are having testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), you may be asked to make another appointment at a lab.  Larger doctors’ offices usually have their own lab, so you may be escorted across the hall to have blood taken.  If you’re afraid of having blood drawn, be prepared!  Drawing blood is crucial to many standard gynecological tests, so don’t be worried if you’re referred for blood work.
  3. Keep in touch.  You will most likely receive your test results (Pap smear, blood work, etc.) in the mail or over the phone in the subsequent two week.  If, after 2-4 weeks, you have not heard anything, call your doctor’s office!  You paid for those tests, so you have the right to know how they turned out.   Things can get lost in the mail or misplaced, so take the reins and find out.  The office staff won’t begrudge you at all.
  4. Remember to make an appointment for next year.  You should never go more than a year without a visit to the gynecologist’s.  Most insurance will only cover one visit in a 365 day period, so if you went on May 1st one year, you will have to wait until least May 1st of the next year.

Remember, this guide is intended as a rough guide to your first visit.  No two appointments will ever be identical.  It is important to do what is right for you.  Please feel free to add your comments and questions and thanks for reading!

The First Visit to the Gynecologist: A Guide (Part One)

A young woman’s first visit to the gynecologist can be daunting.  Women who have already been for a gynecological check-up generally report that it’s unpleasant.  So, naturally, this scares others and many avoid going until they have to.  BUT!  I’m here to help quell those fears and insist that all young women go for a check-up.  My first visit to the gynecologist was about as traumatic as possible, but I know that I might not be alive today if I had not gone.  So, it is of the utmost importance that you take your health seriously and face any fear you might have of going to the gynecologist.  Almost every young woman comes out after that first visit and says, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

Before your appointment:

  1. Do your research!  If you’re reading this blog, you’re off to a good start.  Continue on by finding a local gynecologist that you are comfortable visiting.  Many young women who nervous about their first appointment find it easier to visit a female physician.  It will serve you well to talk to friends about who they go to and why.  Also, look into insurance matters.  It can be really confusing, but ask the office staff of your doctor of choice to help you confirm what is or is not covered by insurance–they’re experts and can find out what you need to know.
  2. Monitor your period.  This is an important habit to keep up your whole life.  If you’ve never kept track of your periods before, start right now!  Keep a calendar record of when your periods begin and end and make notes about any irregularities (more pain, heavier flow, etc.).  You’ll be expected to know how regular (or irregular) your periods are at the doctor’s.
  3. Decide on a day and make the appointment.  Once you known when your “safe times”* are, call the doctor’s and make that appointment!  Just making the appointment is half the battle–the next half is keeping the appointment.  You can do it!

* Many gynecologists will not perform an exam when a woman is menstruating since the blood may obscure their view of the vaginal structures–they look for any abnormalities that are visible to the naked eye.

The day of your appointment:

  1. Shower!  Or bathe!  Just get clean somehow.  Doctors encounter enough unpleasantness throughout a working day–they will thank you for not adding to it.
  2. Try to stay as calm as possible.  Being nervous and jumpy will make the appointment even more lousy.  Take deep breaths, listen to calming music, think happy thoughts.  It might be a good idea to take a friend with you if you’re really nervous.
  3. Get to your appointment on time!  Most doctors’ offices will give a recommendation of how early you should arrive.  Follow it.  If you have a bit of time to spare, you might even show up earlier than that.
  4. Almost across the board, a gynecological appointment requires the patient to provide a urine sample.  So, about an hour or so before your appointment start sipping on water (or your beverage of choice).  They will collect the sample before your actual appointment with the doctor begins and you’ll want to have something in your bladder to give.
  5. Be prepared to answer questions!  Each doctor’s office will ask a different set of questions, but here are some of the most common ones:  When was the first day of your last period (menses/menstruation/etc.)?  What medications are you taking?  (Don’t forget non-prescriptions like vitamins!)  Have you been experiencing any problems, pain, or irregularities?  Do you have a family history of cancer . . . anything?  Are you sexually active?  (BE HONEST!  If you’re nervous about a parent finding out, don’t be.  Doctors, by law, have to respect your confidentiality.)
  6. Wear clothes that are easy to remove.  Wearing clothes with lots of buttons and buckles and so on are a rookie mistake.  You’ll be glad to have a shift dress or sweatpants or what-have-you when they only give you 90 seconds to disrobe!  You might have more time than this, but more often than not I have been given very little time to climb out of my clothes and into the paper clothes.  (Also, wear nice socks.  You’ll want something warm on your feet when you rest of you is clothed in paper.  Your feet will be in the doctor’s face for much of the appointment, so pick nice ones.


The is just the first half of the guide!  Part Two will be published soon.  As always, feel free to add any comments, recommendations, or questions.

(Here is Part Two.)

Fallopian Tubes

What springs to mind when Fallopian tubes are mentioned?  That they “connect” the ovaries to the uterus which leads finally to the vagina and the outside of the body?  Perhaps you think about ectopic pregnancies, as most ectopic pregnancies are indeed “tubal” pregnancies.  Whatever you may think of when Fallopian tubes are brought up, they are some of the least considered and understood parts of a woman’s reproductive tract.  Besides connecting the uterus and ovaries, do they do anything else?  Are they homologous to any part of the male anatomy?  Let’s try to answer some of the most common questions about Fallopian tubes.

First, where does the name “Fallopian” come from?  Unlike most parts of a woman’s reproductive system, this name does not come from Latin or Greek.  The Fallopian tubes are named for Gabriele Falloppio, a 16th-century Italian anatomist.  The canal through which the facial nerve runs after leaving the auditory cochlear nerve is also named after him–the aquaeductus Fallopii.

Back to the subject, why are the Fallopian tubes so often ignored?  Perhaps it has something to do with the lack of pathology or disease associated with the Fallopian tubes.  The most common maladies associated with the Fallopian tubes are, indeed, tubal (ectopic) pregnancy and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).  (To read about two cases of rare ectopic pregnancies, click here.)  Ectopic  pregnancies are estimated to account for less than two of every one-hundred pregnancies.  PID is estimated to occur in nearly one in seven women in the United States.  PID accounts for a large number of all ectopic pregnancies, especially tubal.  Other disease are very rare in the Fallopian tubes.  Cancer, for example, is extremely rare and when it occurs it is often the result of adjacent cancer (such as ovarian).

So, what does a Fallopian tube look like?

The above sketch shows the different parts of the Fallopian tubes.  The fimbriae are the fringe-like extensions from the ostium of the Fallopian tube.   During ovulation, hormones stimulate the fimbriae to make a gentle sweeping motion against the ovaries to pull the released egg (or ovum) into the Fallopian tube.  The ovary and Fallopian are not actually connected to each other.  The ostium is where the fimbriae end and the Fallopian tube begins.  The infundibulum is the wider end of the Fallopian tube that narrows into the ampulla, which is the twisting portion of the tube in the above sketch.  It is where most fertilizations occur.  The ampulla continues into the isthmus, the shortest and most narrow portion of the Fallopian tube.  The pars uterina is the place where the uterus and Fallopian tube connects.

This sketch indicates better how the Fallopian tubes, uterus, and ovaries are all connected (or, in fact, not connected).  Most human Fallopian tubes are between seven and fourteen centimeters in length. Once an egg has entered the Fallopian tube, the mucosal cilia of the Fallopian tube move the egg towards the uterus.  The cilia are finger-like projects that sweep or push.  (Cilia are also found in the windpipe and sweep mucus and dust away from the lungs.)  Finally, Fallopian tubes are not homologous to any structure in the male body, thus they are completely unique to the female body.  (The ovaries, for example, are homologous to testes in males.)

Now, hopefully you and I both know a little more about the Fallopian tubes.  Want to know more or already know more and want to share it?  Please, don’t be shy!

History of the IUD

Speaking of Dr. Ernst Gräfenberg, let’s talk about intrauterine devices (IUDs) since Dr. G is recognized as the first developer of the modern IUD.  IUDs, in a crude sense, have existed for an untold number of years.  Women and men have inserted various implements into human and animal uteri to prevent pregnancy for many years.  Forerunners to the modern IUD emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century with inventions such as the stem pessary.

The first true modern IUD was invented in the late 1920s by Dr. Gräfenberg when he was still practicing gynecology in Germany.  The IUD that Dr. G invented was, instead of the familiar t-shaped device, actually a circle-shaped device:  the Gräfenberg ring.  These rings were silk threads covered with fine silver wire.  The metal of this device caused an inflammatory response in the uterus thus creating hostile conditions for sperm.  He later found that some copper mixed with the silver aided in the contraceptive ability of the device.  (Of course, for a number of uteri in which these were inserted the inflammation was so great as to cause complications, though these were rarely severe.)  By the end of the 1930s, the Gräfenberg ring fell out of use mostly because of the eugenic policies implemented by Nazi Germany (in which all contraception was outlawed, as it was in Japan as well).  Gräfenberg himself left Germany in 1937 to escape persecution because of his Jewish heritage.

The modern plastic-based IUD began to take shape in the United States in the 1950s.  Lazar C. Margulies, an obstetrician in New York, is generally credited for pioneering plastic IUDs to help reduce the danger associated with previous IUDs.  In 1958 he introduced his version of the IUD, though it was not greatly successful because of its large size.  In 1962, Jack Lippes, a gynecologist also in New York, developed a smaller, plastic IUD that became more popular.  In the late 1960s, Howard Tatum, another New York obstetrician, developed a plastic-cased, cooper-based IUD that could be dramatically reduced in size without sacrifcing its effectiveness.  During the 1970s, in an effort to help cheaply curb reproduction and enforce the “one-child policy,” Chinese physicians developed the stainless-steel IUD, but banned them by early 1990s because of a 10% pregnancy rate due to steel’s lowered contraceptive capability.

The second generation of plastic-copper IUDs came around in the 1970s.  These IUDs increased the surface area of the devices and increased their effectiveness above 99%.  Today, in the United States, this type of IUD and one other type are available.  The copper IUD available in the United States is called ParaGuard and is effective for twelve years.  The other type of IUD available in the United States is a hormone-based IUD, called Mirena, that functions in a few ways.  This IUD first creates a hostile environment for sperm, much like copper-IUDs by thinning the uterine lining making it highly unlikely a fertilized egg could implant in the uterus.  Second, the hormones involved create a thicker cervical plug making it less likely that sperm will enter the uterus to begin with.  Finally, the hormone-IUD in some instances stops the ovary from releasing an egg, though this is less likely than the other two functions.  Hormone-based IUDs were developed in the 1970s, but have not been popular in the United States until recently because of ad campaigns for Mirena (though they remain relatively very unpopular compared to condoms and the pill).

This is all a sort of background to understanding the IUD.  Hopefully, in a later entry we can better address the scientific and medical aspects of IUDs in their modern form.  Do you have something to say about IUDs?  Or anything else?  I yield the floor.