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What is a Teratoma?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A teratoma is a type of germ cell tumor which contains several different types of cells, caused when germ cells run amok and start replicating where they shouldn't. This type of tumor is actually present at birth, but it may not be noticed until later in life, and it could be considered a form of congenital birth defect. Most teratomas are benign, but some can become malignant, especially if they are located in the testes.

The word “teratoma” literally means “monstrous tumor” in Greek, a reference to the jumbled mass of tissue types which is common to these tumors. They can contain skin, hair, bone, and cells like those found in various organs and glands. In some cases, structures such as eyes and extremities have developed. They can be found anywhere in the body, and in some cases, the tumor may even be visible during ultrasound examinations, in which case, it may be possible to remove the tumor before birth.

To be considered a true teratoma, the tumor must contain all three layers of the germ cells. Germ cells are very unique because they can divide and differentiate into anything, from the upper layers of the skin to the internal organs of the body. In the case of this tumor, a pocket of germ cells starts to multiply, and several different types of tissue begin to develop, but the tissue is usually not functional.

Historically, these tumors were a topic of intense interest. Especially large teratomas or growths with unusual complexity were preserved in anatomical collections as examples of curiosities, and the opportunity to see or operate on one was exciting for many medical practitioners. Now that we know how the tumors form, they are much less mysterious, but they can still be rather interesting.

Teratomas can grow quite rapidly, and they may cause a variety of symptoms, depending on where they are located. Benign tumors can cause inflammation, abdominal pressure, and obvious swellings, while malignant tumors can start to spread to neighboring organs, causing a decline in organ function.

The treatment is removal. Once the tumor is removed, it will be examined to determine whether or not it is malignant. In the case of a malignancy, chemotherapy and radiation may be used to prevent the recurrence of the tumor, and to address the tumor's spread to neighboring organs, if this has occurred. The prognosis for patients with malignant tumors varies, depending on the location of the tumor and when it was identified.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon306303 — On Nov 29, 2012

@browncoat: Benign means it is *not* cancerous.

By anon282229 — On Jul 28, 2012

I was told I was born a conjoined twin back in 87 but the other fetus didn't develop all the way. They removed the teratoma at birth since it was sucking all the blood from me and getting bigger. They were telling my mother she had a 50/50 chance of losing me as well. It had all teeth, hair and bones. Now to this day I have been told I was born a conjoined twin. Who knows if this was true or not? But I don't think it's disturbing at all. I've had to live with it. Still to this day I face medical problems due to that.

By KoiwiGal — On Sep 15, 2011

@browncoat - It might be a "good" cancer to have (not that there are any good cancers) but teratomas are just weird. It's difficult to really understand that there are fully formed rows of teeth in some of them until you see pictures of them.

It's also pretty awful that they can affect babies. So I will continue to be disturbed by them and hope that I don't get one.

By browncoat — On Sep 15, 2011

@umbra21 - There are worse forms of cancer to have than a teratoma cancer. More often than not they are quite benign, and may not even get all that big. As long as you had it removed, you would have a very high survival rate.

And while you hear about the more unusual ones that have what seem like developed body parts in them, more often than not they just have bits of tissue that ought to be elsewhere.

Most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference between, say, liver tissue and muscle tissue anyway.

And, in fact, they often don't know if a teratoma is a conjoined twin or not. After all, that kind of twin would usually be genetically identical. So it would be impossible to tell whether it was your own cells, or those of a twin. And, in some cases of ovarian teratoma, they have found what looks like a fetus. But, again, it is very difficult to tell how it actually originated.

By umbra21 — On Sep 14, 2011

There was an episode of Grey's Anatomy where they operated on a man who had a teratoma tumour that began to grow. His character had a pregnant wife, and his teratoma was growing in his stomach, so they made it sound as though he was also pregnant.

It confused me a bit, about what a teratoma actually is. Because I know there have been cases where a person has a congenital twin that shows up like a tumor, with odd body parts in places where they shouldn't be.

But, a teratoma is made up of your own cells that just happen to divide into different bits of your body in one place.

It's quite disturbing. I know why they use it in medical shows. I hope I never find out that I have one myself!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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