Germ cell tumors are a very rare type of cancer, developed in the cells that form the sperm of the male and the egg of the female, and thus multiplying on the cells that create the reproductive system of the embryo. Germ cell tumors can spread and attach themselves to either the ovaries or testes and have a tendency of traveling and thriving in other parts of the body. During fetal development in pregnancy, as the embryo starts maturing, germ cells which produce the eggs or sperms move towards the ovaries or testes by attaching itself and start proliferating, or the germ cells may spread to other parts of the body, eventually developing into either malignant or non-malignant tumors.
Since these cells are responsible for making the reproductive system of the embryo, almost 90% of the germ cell tumors that are developed in infants and children and are known as gonadal tumors such as dysgerminomas (malignant cells found in the ovaries) or seminomas (malignant cells found in the testes). The other 10% can spread to other parts of the body such as in the brain, chest, lower back or tailbone, also known as teratomas.
The cause of germ cell tumors is not entirely understood by scientists and is described as a type of genetic syndrome, causing an atypical development of the reproductive system of the fetus/child. Some of the common signs that your child may display during their early years is an internal or external lump or tumor in the ovaries or testes, abnormal levels of alpha-feto protein or elevated levels of β-HCG (beta human chorionic gonadotropin). Endodermal sinus tumor (yolk sac tumor) is a rare kind of tumor and are known to be aggressive usually metastasizing to the lymph nodes and other parts of the body. Another type of germ cell cancer is choriocarcinoma a rare and malignant type of tumor formed in the layer of the placenta through which the embryo/fetus feeds on oxygen-stored cells, foods and other material. These tumors have the ability of metastasizing to the mother and fetus.
Treatment is often decided upon the type of tumor, the stage of development of the disease and the child’s age or tolerance to certain treatment drugs, such as radiation or chemotherapy, while taking in consideration the child’s overall health and family history. Treatment options may be one or a combination of these, such as surgery (sub-total or total), hormonal replacement, antibiotics and bone marrow transplantation. Surgical removal of the tumor is often considered, however, when the tumor is unreachable, a subtotal resection in combination with chemotherapy or radiation is often recommended. Teratomas for example, can sometimes block the passage of fluid to the brain since they are developed in the spine or tailbone, thus causing hydrocephalus. In such cases, a verticular-peritoneal shunt is recommended. Side effects to these treatments are expected especially when dealing with pediatric cancers. Fortunately, simple routine exams taken during pregnancy, such blood work or imaging exams can often detect the disease in its early stages and provide a better life expectancy for the mother and child.