What is a Teratocarcinoma?

Amanda de la Garza

Teratocarcinoma is a type of germ cell cancer that can impact both humans and many animals. Germ cells occur almost exclusively in the reproductive system, and this sort of cancer usually develops in the ovaries or testes as a result. It is typically a fast-growing cancer, which means it can spread very quickly. As such, it’s not uncommon for it to be discovered somewhere else entirely, particularly in the brain or in the inside of the mouth. In rare cases growth can start outside of the reproductive tract, but this usually only happens in instances of birth defect or abnormality during gestation that puts germ cells in unusual places. If the cancer is caught early on there is usually a good chance of recovery, but a lot of this depends on how aggressive the growths are and how far they have spread throughout the body. Most medical experts recommend regular screenings and exams to detect growths before they become unwieldy.

Teratocarcinoma may develop in the testis.
Teratocarcinoma may develop in the testis.

Early Development

This sort of cancer is usually considered quite rare, and it only comes about when there are defined defects in the genetic coding of one of more germ cells. Sometimes this defect is inherited, but more often it comes as a consequence of some error during formation or some trigger caused by the environment.

Menstrual abnormalities may be a symptom of teratocarcinoma.
Menstrual abnormalities may be a symptom of teratocarcinoma.

Most cancers are characterized by rapid, unchecked cell growth, and this is no exception. The germ cell or cells that are impacted begin regenerating themselves so fast and so frequently that they form a growth known as a tumor. Sometimes that tumor grows outward, becoming a large and identifiable lump, but it may also stay small and try to branch itself, often looking to spread to nearby tissues and organs. This type of cancer frequently spreads throughout the lymphatic system, for instance, and with the help of lymphatic fluid can circulate to nearly any part of the body.

Teratocarcinoma may develop in the ovaries.
Teratocarcinoma may develop in the ovaries.

Relationship to Teratomas

A teratocarcinoma is often discussed in conjunction with teratomas, and both are names for abnormal germ cell growths; the two are related, but shouldn't be confused. The main difference is that a teratoma is typically a benign tumor. Teratocarcinoma, on the other hand, is typically comprised of both a teratoma and an embryonal carcinoma — a relatively rare, malignant form of cancer of the ovaries or testes — or a teratoma and a choriocarcinoma, which is an aggressive, malignant cancer that involves trophoblasts. Trophoblasts are specialized cells that make up the outer layer of blastocytic cells, which provide nutrients to the embryo and form a large part of the placenta.

Both, however, are quite ugly things. This is why their name is aptly chosen. The word “terato” has Greek origins and roughly means "monster." The reason these things are "monstrous" is because they can contain organ or tissue components that are normally present in other areas of the body, such as teeth, skin, and bone. At times even entire limbs and organs of nonviable fetuses can be found in these growths, either as a result of a failed pregnancy or as a consequence of an unknown, non-viable twin present at a person’s initial gestation.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Teratocarcinoma may come to a patient's attention by way of a painless testicular lump, worrisome abdominal sensations, or menstrual abnormalities. These symptoms, of course, do not necessarily mean that anything as serious as cancer is present. The patient will usually see a urological or gynecological oncologist who will perform an exam and, if a growth is discovered, take a biopsy for a pathologist to examine.

Treatment of germinal tumors typically has a high success rate depending on the stage at which the disease is diagnosed. Early detection and treatment result in the best results and the most survivals. The most common suite of treatments for the disease involves radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, which can be effective even if it has metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. Nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle modifications usually play an important role in recovery as well.

Prevention Strategies

There isn’t much people can do to prevent this sort of cancer from occurring, but getting regular check-ups can be a good way of making sure that it’s caught early on. Paying attention to physical changes and getting help whenever something seems awry can also help, particularly in people with a family history of cancer. For men, self-exams of the testes often play into this. Since the ovaries are internal organs, this isn’t a practical suggestion for women.

Any testicular lump should be brought to the attention of a physician.
Any testicular lump should be brought to the attention of a physician.

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