Germ cells are the reproductive cells in your body. For females, these are egg cells, and in males, they are sperm cells. Germ cell tumors start in these cells. Most develop in the testicles or ovaries, and can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign). While germ cell cancer is a rare kind of ovarian cancer, it is the most common type of testicular cancer.
Very rarely, germ cell cancers can also develop in the lower back, abdomen, chest, and brain. It’s unclear why this happens.
Symptoms differ depending on when the germ cell tumor is.
Symptoms of testicular germ cell cancer include:
- A lump in your testicles
- Testicle pain
- Early puberty
Ovarian tumors may be particularly hard to diagnose, because there are usually no symptoms in early stages. Symptoms of ovarian germ cell cancer include:
- Swelling in your abdomen
- Vaginal bleeding after menopause
- Pain or cramping in your pelvis
- Early puberty
Symptoms of other types of germ cell cancer include:
- A lump in your lower back. This is more common in infants.
- Trouble breathing
Both cancerous and non-cancerous germ cell tumors are usually removed surgically. If the tumor is not cancer, just the tumor can be removed in some cases. In other cases, some of the surrounding tissue will need to be removed.
If you have an ovarian germ cell cancerous tumor, one or both of your ovaries or fallopian tubes may need to be removed. If the cancer has spread, your uterus and cervix may also need to be removed, in a surgery called a total hysterectomy. If you have a cancerous germ cell tumor in a testicle, the testicle will be removed.
Chemotherapy or radiation may be given after surgery, to help kill any cancer cells left in your body.
People with certain conditions that affect the number of chromosomes or how your body reacts to hormones, such as Turner’s syndrome or androgen insensitivity syndrome, are at higher risk of developing germ cell tumors.
Males with undescended testicles are also at a higher risk of developing a germ cell tumor.