What is a germ cell tumor?
As a baby grows in the uterus, cells form the reproductive system, including eggs in the ovary and sperm in the testes. Through time, these cells can grow into germ cell tumors, also called gonadal germ cell tumors. Germ cell tumors may be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Although germ cells are usually in the reproductive organs, these cells can sometimes travel to other parts of the body and cause tumors, called extragonadal germ cell tumors. Areas where germ cell tumors can occur include the following:
- Brain (This page is about germ cell tumors that start in parts of the body outside of the brain, called extracranial germ cell tumors. Learn more about germ cell tumors within the brain, called intracranial germ cell tumors, at Germ Cell Tumor (Brain).)
What are the types of germ cell tumors?
There are three different types of germ cell tumors:
- Mature teratomas (noncancerous)
- Immature teratomas (cancerous)
- Malignant germ cell tumors. These cancerous tumors include several tumor types:
- Yolk sac tumors
How common is a germ cell tumor?
- Germ cell tumors are rare. They make up about 3% of all cases of childhood cancer.
- They are most common in babies and teens.
- We do not know exactly why germ cell tumors develop. But, we know that they are more common in people with certain inherited disorders (passed down through families), such as Klinefelter syndrome. They are also more common in males with a history of undescended testicles.
What are the symptoms of germ cell tumors?
If your child has a germ cell tumor, the symptoms depend on the location of the tumors. Symptoms can include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- A lump on the lower back or near the anus, especially in a baby
- Cough or trouble breathing
- Onset of puberty at a very young age
- In teenage boys: a solid lump on the testicles that may enlarge or become painful
What tests are performed to detect a germ cell tumor?
- A physical exam performed by a doctor
- Blood tests to test for alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and a hormone called beta-human chorionic gonadotropin (bHCG). These levels may be higher in some people with germ cell tumors.
- Blood tests to measure blood counts and liver and kidney function
- CT scan of the chest, abdomen or pelvis
- Ultrasound of the testes (if testes tumor) or abdomen (if ovarian tumor)
- Biopsy or surgery
How are germ cell tumors staged?
Your doctor will look at the imaging studies and surgery results to decide the stage of the disease:
- Stage 1 — the tumor is entirely removed with surgery
- Stage 2 — the tumor is removed by surgery, but microscopic cells are left behind
- Stage 3 — the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes
- Stage 4 — the tumor has spread to other areas of the body
How is a germ cell tumor treated?
An attempt is made to remove all germ cell tumors with surgery. The chemotherapy (chemo) used to treat germ cell tumors depends on the location of the tumor, the type of tumor and the stage of disease.
- Surgery — is used to remove the tumor or as much of it as possible (debulking):
- If there is only one tumor and the entire tumor is removed, usually no other treatment is needed.
- If the tumor has spread to other parts of the body, chemo usually works well.
- Chemotherapy (“chemo”) — uses powerful medicines to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing (dividing) and making more cancer cells:
- Chemo is most often injected into the bloodstream, so that it can travel throughout the body.
- Some chemo may be given by mouth.
- Combination therapy uses more than one type of chemo at a time.
What are the survival rates for germ cell tumors?
- Factors that affect the survival rate of patients with germ cell tumors include the following:
- The type of germ cell tumor
- The location of the main tumor
- The stage of cancer
- Whether the tumor can be removed with surgery
- The patient’s age
- Complete tumor removal often leaves the patient free of disease.
- Cure rates for patients with germ cell tumors
- 90% for stage 1 and 2 disease
- 87% for stage 3 disease
- 82% for stage 4 disease
Why choose St. Jude for your child’s germ cell tumor treatment?
- St. Jude is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center devoted solely to children.
- St. Jude has created more clinical trials for cancer than any other children’s hospital in the United States.
- The nurse-to-patient ratio at St. Jude is unmatched—averaging 1:3 in hematology and oncology, and 1:1 in the Intensive Care Unit.
- Ongoing research is focused on shortening how long patients receive chemo. The hope is to keep excellent survival rates while decreasing the long-term effects of treatment.
- Your child will have access to a close-knit team of specialists that includes: surgeons; doctors and nurses who treat this cancer; doctors who specialize in radiation therapy, in hormones (endocrinologists), and in diagnosis (pathologists); experts in diagnostic imaging and nuclear medicine; dietitians; speech therapists; rehabilitation specialists (physical therapists, occupational therapists); child life specialists; psychologists; Quality of Life team members; experts who help manage and minimize the long-term or late effects of treatment; researchers; scientists; and many others.
- The medical team works closely with laboratory researchers to bring new treatments from the laboratory to the clinic.
The St. Jude website is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through this site should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your health care provider.