Germ cells are cells responsible for transforming into sperm or eggs. However, sometimes the germ cells grow tumors instead of sperm or eggs. Sometimes the tumors can be benign but in some cases they can be cancerous or malignant. Germ cells are located in the testes, ovaries and brain but can spread down from the brain into the liquid surrounding the spine called the cerebrospinal fluid.
GCTs that form outside of the brain or spine, known as extracranial germ cell tumors, can spread to other parts of the body. GCTs that form inside the brain or spine are called cranial germ cell tumors. Mixed germ cell tumors are found inside and outside of the brain or spine. People most affected by germ cell tumors or GCTs are patients ranging from 11 to 30 years old. The cause for germ cell tumors is unknown.
Symptoms vary depending on where the GCTs are growing. Any tumors near or on glands cause symptoms depending on which gland is affected.
The American Brain Tumor Association notes that GCTs inside of the brain often produce severe headaches.
Other symptoms include severe abdominal or chest pain, the growth of strange lumps anywhere on the body, urinating more often than usual and growing hair in different parts of the body. Girls begin menstruation at an early age. Boys hit puberty earlier than expected.
Germ cell tumors are caused when germ cells (which develop in the embryo and later become the person’s reproductive system) begin to grow abnormally. Most ovarian and testicular tumors originate from germ cells.
It is not fully known what causes germ cell tumors; however, there is some speculation. Defects in the central nervous system and the genitourinary tract have been associated with a greater risk for germ cell tumors. In addition, the presence of extra or missing chromosomes can cause other genetic syndromes which may also increase one’s risk of a germ cell tumor, as these syndromes can cause abnormal or incomplete development of the reproductive system. Males with chriptorchydism (a condition where the testes fail to fully descend into the scrotum) are at increased risk for testicular tumors of germ cell origin. Turner Syndrome, a syndrome where females are missing one X chromosome, puts these people at risk for developing a gonadoblastoma, a germ cell tumor which can become cancerous. Males with Klinefelter’s syndrome are at extra risk for developing a germ cell tumor in the chest. Finally, people with androgen insensitivity syndrome (a condition where people who are genetically male are also resistant to particular male hormones) are at increased risk for gonadoblastomas as well.
GCTs do not go away by themselves. If left untreated, the person with GCTs can die.
Treatment begins with many tests to rule out other causes of symptoms and to locate the tumor or tumors. Then doctors or oncologists need a biopsy to determine if the tumors are benign or malignant. If test results confirm that the tumor is malignant, it is also vital to determine how advanced it is. Treatment is the same as for many other forms of cancer where radiation, chemotherapy and surgery are performed. If the tumors are successfully removed, the patient should have tests at least once a year thereafter to make sure the tumors or cancer has not returned.
There is no specific way to prevent a germ cell tumor due to its genetic components. If there is a family history of germ cell tumors, one may explore preventative options such as the preemptive removal of sex organs likely to grow tumors. However, this is a severe option involving major surgery, and should only be undergone with careful guidance from a trusted doctor.
While germ cell tumors cannot necessarily be prevented, they are treatable. Some tumors are benign and others are cancerous. Often, a course of action will involve surgery to remove the tumor, followed by a course of chemotherapy in the case of malignant tumors.