Germ cell tumors

The term "germ cell" refers to-giving of life, as in "germinate" (not from "germs" as in bacteria). Germ cells got their name because they normally produce the specialized cells that give rise to new life: sperm and egg cells – those needed for human reproduction.

Germ cell tumors can arise in young children, teens, and adults. Germ cell tumors are rare; only 2.4 children out of 1 million will develop a germ cell tumor each year. Patients diagnosed with this type of cancer make up only 4% of all cancers in children and adolescents less than 20 years old.

Germ cell tumors most commonly appear in the gonads (sex organs). However, these tumors can arise in several different places within the body:

  • The testes (boys)
  • The ovaries (girls)
  • The abdomen and pelvis
  • The mediastinum (part of the chest between the breastplate and the spinal column)
  • The brain

Germ cells develop early in life. At about four weeks, the earliest germ cells in the growing fetus migrate from their point of origin to the gonadal area. But germ cells do not always reach their intended destination, and germ cell tumors can occur wherever these cells end up. Germ cell tumors can be malignant (life-threatening) or benign (not life-threatening).

Malignant germ cell tumors include several types of cancer, such as immature teratoma, yolk sac tumor and choriocarcinoma. They can destroy the testes or ovaries and can spread to other parts of the body.

Benign germ cell tumors include certain kinds of teratomas. A teratoma is a tumor that may contain several different types of tissue, such as hair, muscle, and bone. Although not as difficult to deal with as malignant tumors, benign germ cell tumors can cause problems because of their size. They can be quite large, even in a newborn.

Last updated July, 2011

Newly Diagnosed with Germ Cell Tumors
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