Germ Cell Tumors (GCTs) are not tumors caused by germs. The name comes from the fact that these tumors occur in a germ cell, one that “germinates” life such as in the testes or ovaries in an organism that reproduces sexually.
A germ cell is one that gives rise to a gamete. A gamete is any cell that fuses with another during the fertilization process.
The cause of germ cell tumors is not known. They generally occur inside the gonads (ovaries and testis) and are classified by the microscopic anatomy of the cells. Although rare, germ cells can occur in children, teens and adults.
Signs & Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of germ cell tumors vary depending on where the tumor is located and how far it has progressed. If the tumor is in the testes it may appear as a painless mass or lump. If the child is young enough his parents may notice it. If the patient is a girl and the tumor develops in her ovaries this may result in abdominal pain or constipation. Only if the mass grows significantly would it be detected from the outside.
Other types of germ tumors include mediastinal tumors and sacroccygeal teratomas. Mediastinal tumors can result in shortness of breath and wheezing. Sacroccygeal tumors result in a mass around the anus and are most often found in newborns.
Germ tumors are diagnosed using several criteria. Their location, the characteristics of the cells, the stage, and the age of the patient are all factors in diagnosing germ tumors. Tumor cell markers are also used to diagnose germ tumors. These can help show the rate of growth of the cancer.
Germ tumors are most often treated with surgery, stem cell rescue and high doses of chemotherapy. In women surgery means that one or both of the ovaries may be removed. In men, the testes may be removed. In both cases every attempt is made to keep fertility intact while still eradicating the cancerous cells. After treatment patients should be monitored closely to ensure that the cancer has not returned.
Access to the appropriate treatments greatly helps a patient’s chances of recovering from germ tumors. Prognosis improves over time and when a diagnosis is made early. Generally, the younger a patient is the better their chances of survival.
There are two classes of germ cell tumors – germinomatous and nongerminomatous. Germinomatous tumors respond well to treatment and have a good prognosis. Nongerminomatous tumors grow faster and have a less successful survival rate.