Let’s face it: Being young is pretty awesome. I mean, you look great, you feel great, and you have an active social life. Plus, you aren’t yet bogged down with real responsibilities and expectations. There’s no need to do/save for/worry about anything today when you can just put that off for tomorrow.

But there is one thing all women — even young, carefree gals — need to pay attention to: their ovaries.

Many women don’t give their ovaries a second thought unless they’re trying to get pregnant or they notice something really wrong. But being aware of your body, especially from an early age, is crucial to your long-term health. It can even improve early detection of some pretty serious health conditions.

So here’s a rundown of what you need to know.

Getting to Know Your Ovaries

You likely learned a little bit about your ovaries during that awkward reproductive health lesson in middle school. So you probably understand that normal menstrual cycles consist of a period of hormone buildup (during which one or more eggs develops in the ovaries), ovulation (when the developed eggs are released from the ovary), and then either fertilization of the egg or a shedding of the uterine lining (your period).

But knowing the basics isn’t enough anymore. Maintaining a healthy reproductive system is about more than just regular cycles. It’s about understanding what’s “normal” for your body so you can catch even the smallest changes, which could point to bigger problems.

For example, ovarian cancer is the 10th most common form of cancer that women face today and the fifth most common cause of cancer-related deaths. Although ovarian cancer is more likely to affect older women, certain types of the disease can affect women under 40, especially if ovarian cancer runs in their families. Early detection of this disease correlates with higher survival rates, so consulting with your doctor about any abnormality can make a huge difference.

Ovarian cysts are another common condition that women of all ages should be aware of. Most women develop ovarian cysts during their lifetimes, though many experience no symptoms or complications. However, some ovarian cysts can be more serious. A ruptured cyst can lead to severe pain and internal bleeding, and some can develop into ovarian cancer. Watch for changes in your body and get regular gynecological exams to stay ahead of this condition.

Keeping Your Ovaries in Tip-Top Shape

Overall, keeping your ovaries — and entire body — healthy isn’t that complicated. For most women, it requires only a few steps:

1. Know your family history. Get a better understanding of your family’s medical and cancer history, particularly of breast, ovarian, uterine, and colon cancers. Ask whether anyone in the family has or has been tested for the BRCA1, BRCA2, MLH1, or MSH2 gene mutations, which can increase your risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer.

2. Talk to your doctor about genetic testing. If you have a known family history of cancer, talk to your physician about whether you should consider genetic testing or counseling. A genetic counselor can review your medical history and talk to you about your likelihood of being affected by a similar gene mutation. A counselor can also go over the pros and cons of genetic testing, how to interpret your results, and whether you need to consider alternate preventive measures.

3. Consider a hormonal contraceptive. Studies have shown that women who take some form of hormonal contraceptive for three years or longer reduce their risk of ovarian cancer by 30-50 percent. Pregnancy and breastfeeding can also lower your risk of developing ovarian cancer. If you’re not ready for a baby, an oral contraceptive can prevent pregnancy and help lower your risk of cancer.

4. Visit your physician if anything seems off. Paying attention to your body and seeking medical attention if you experience any abnormal symptoms is the best way to keep your health in check.

Some of the most common signs to watch for include bloating; pelvic, abdominal, or back pain; unusual urinary or bowel changes; pain during sex; upset stomach; and menstrual changes. If anything out of the ordinary begins happening more often or suddenly becomes more severe, see your gynecologist immediately.

It’s important to get to know your body from a young age so you’ll recognize even subtle changes that point to bigger health problems. And if you ever notice something out of the ordinary, don’t put off going to the doctor. Just because you’re young and carefree doesn’t mean you should be careless about your reproductive health.

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