What Are Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 21, 2022
4 min read

An ovarian germ cell tumor is a growth in a woman's ovaries. Most of these tumors aren’t cancer. Instead, they are “benign” growths. Cancerous germ cell tumors are rare. They make up only 2% of all ovarian cancers.

The ovaries make a woman’s eggs and female hormones. Germ cell tumors start in the ovarian cells that produce eggs.

Even if you have this type of cancer, there's a good chance your doctors can cure it. And most women who get these tumors can have children after they're treated.

Doctors don't know exactly why some women get ovarian germ cell tumors. Some birth defects that affect the nervous system, genitals, and urinary tract can make a woman more likely to develop this type of tumor. Certain genetic conditions that cause extra or missing sex chromosomes can also raise your risk.

Ovarian germ cell tumors are usually found in teen girls or young women. Less often, women who are in their 60s can get this tumor.

Ovarian germ cell tumors can be hard to find early because they often don't cause symptoms until they have spread. When they do cause symptoms, you may have:

  • Swelling in your belly but not in other parts of your body
  • Pain, pressure, or a feeling of fullness in your belly
  • Bleeding from the vagina after you've gone through menopause

Many other things can cause those problems. But see your doctor to make sure.

Your doctor will ask about your health and any symptoms you've had, and then feel your belly for any swelling or lumps.

These tests can help diagnose ovarian germ cell tumors:

Pelvic exam. The doctor inserts a speculum into your vagina. This device widens the opening so your doctor can see your cervix and feel your uterus and ovaries. The doctor will place a gloved, lubricated finger into your vagina and feel for any changes in the size or shape of your ovaries.

Blood test. Cancers sometimes release substances called tumor markers into the blood. Doctors can look for these markers to help diagnose ovarian germ cell tumors.

CT, or computed tomography scan. This powerful X-ray makes detailed pictures of your ovaries and other organs.

MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging. It uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make pictures of your ovaries and other organs.

Laparotomy. During this procedure, the doctor makes a cut in your abdomen to look for signs of cancer. The doctor might remove a small piece of tissue to check under a microscope. This is called a biopsy.

If you do have cancer, other tests can show whether it has spread to other parts of your body. This helps to determine your cancer’s stage. Knowing the stage can help your doctor find the right treatment for you.

You and your doctor might decide to wait to start treatment if your tumor is benign. This is called observation, or “watchful waiting.” The doctor will track your health carefully.

Three main treatments are used for ovarian germ cell tumors.

Surgery. If your tumor isn’t cancerous, the doctor can just remove the part of the ovary that contains the tumor.

If you do have cancer, the goal is to remove as much of it possible. Which type of surgery you have depends on how large your tumor has grown.

  • Salpingo-oophorectomy. The surgeon removes one or both ovaries and fallopian tubes.
  • Total hysterectomy. The surgeon removes your ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, and cervix.

Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses medicine to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. You can take these drugs by mouth or through a needle into a vein or muscle. You might have chemotherapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left behind.

You won’t need chemo if your tumor isn’t cancer.

Radiation. Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells or stop them from growing. You can get radiation therapy on its own or after surgery.

Should your tumor turn out to be cancer, palliative care is also important. It includes treatment for pain, emotional stress, and other issues as well as the cancer itself.

Doctors test new treatments for ovarian germ cell tumors in clinical trials. These trials are often a way for people to try a new medicine that isn't available to everyone. You may want to ask your doctor if there's a clinical trial that would be a good fit for you.

Whether you can get pregnant after a germ cell tumor depends on the type of surgery you have.

If only one ovary and fallopian tube are removed, often you can still get pregnant. Even if your surgeon has to take out both ovaries, you can freeze your eggs before the operation and try IVF in the future. But you won't be able to get pregnant if you have both your ovaries and uterus removed.

Talk to your doctor about your options before you have surgery. The doctor may be able to conserve one or both of your ovaries if you plan to get pregnant in the future.