Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors Symptoms, Tests, Prognosis, and Stages (PDQ®)–Patient Version

General Information About Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Key Points

  • Ovarian germ cell tumor is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the germ (egg) cells of the ovary.
  • Signs of ovarian germ cell tumor are swelling of the abdomen or vaginal bleeding after menopause.
  • Tests that examine the ovaries, pelvic area, blood, and ovarian tissue are used to detect (find) and diagnose ovarian germ cell tumor.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery and treatment options).

Ovarian germ cell tumor is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the germ (egg) cells of the ovary.

Germ cell tumors begin in the reproductive cells (egg or sperm) of the body. Ovarian germ cell tumors usually occur in teenage girls or young women and most often affect just one ovary.

The ovaries are a pair of organs in the female reproductive system. They are in the pelvis, one on each side of the uterus (the hollow, pear-shaped organ where a fetus grows). Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond. The ovaries make eggs and female hormones.

EnlargeAnatomy of the female reproductive system; drawing shows the uterus, myometrium (muscular outer layer of the uterus), endometrium (inner lining of the uterus), ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina.
Anatomy of the female reproductive system. The organs in the female reproductive system include the uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, and vagina. The uterus has a muscular outer layer called the myometrium and an inner lining called the endometrium.

Ovarian germ cell tumor is a general name that is used to describe several different types of cancer. The most common ovarian germ cell tumor is called dysgerminoma. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of ovarian tumors:

Signs of ovarian germ cell tumor are swelling of the abdomen or vaginal bleeding after menopause.

Ovarian germ cell tumors can be hard to diagnose (find) early. Often there are no symptoms in the early stages, but tumors may be found during regular gynecologic exams (checkups). Check with your doctor if you have either of the following:

  • Swollen abdomen without weight gain in other parts of the body.
  • Bleeding from the vagina after menopause (when you are no longer having menstrual periods).

Tests that examine the ovaries, pelvic area, blood, and ovarian tissue are used to detect (find) and diagnose ovarian germ cell tumor.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • Pelvic exam : An exam of the vagina, cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and rectum. A speculum is inserted into the vagina and the doctor or nurse looks at the vagina and cervix for signs of disease. A Pap test of the cervix is usually done. The doctor or nurse also inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and places the other hand over the lower abdomen to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. The doctor or nurse also inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.
    EnlargePelvic exam; drawing shows a side view of the female reproductive anatomy during a pelvic exam. The uterus, left fallopian tube, left ovary, cervix, vagina, bladder, and rectum are shown. Two gloved fingers of one hand of the doctor or nurse are shown inserted into the vagina, while the other hand is shown pressing on the lower abdomen. The inset shows a woman covered by a drape on an exam table with her legs apart and her feet in stirrups.
    Pelvic exam. A doctor or nurse inserts one or two lubricated, gloved fingers of one hand into the vagina and presses on the lower abdomen with the other hand. This is done to feel the size, shape, and position of the uterus and ovaries. The vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, and rectum are also checked.
  • Laparotomy : A surgical procedure in which an incision (cut) is made in the wall of the abdomen to check the inside of the abdomen for signs of disease. The size of the incision depends on the reason the laparotomy is being done. Sometimes organs are removed or tissue samples are taken and checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • Serum tumor marker test : A procedure in which a sample of blood is checked to measure the amounts of certain substances released into the blood by organs, tissues, or tumor cells in the body. Certain substances are linked to specific types of cancer when found in increased levels in the blood. These are called tumor markers. An increased level of alpha fetoprotein (AFP) or human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in the blood may be a sign of ovarian germ cell tumor.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery and treatment options).

The prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options depend on the following:

  • The type of cancer.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • The stage of cancer (whether it affects part of the ovary, involves the whole ovary, or has spread to other places in the body).
  • The way the cancer cells look under a microscope.
  • The patient’s general health.

Ovarian germ cell tumors are usually cured if found and treated early.

Stages of Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Key Points

  • After ovarian germ cell tumor has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the ovary or to other parts of the body.
  • There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
  • Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
  • The following stages are used for ovarian germ cell tumors:
    • Stage I
    • Stage II
    • Stage III
    • Stage IV

After ovarian germ cell tumor has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the ovary or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out whether cancer has spread within the ovary or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. Unless a doctor is sure the cancer has spread from the ovaries to other parts of the body, an operation called a laparotomy is done to see if the cancer has spread. The doctor must cut into the abdomen and carefully look at all the organs to see if they have cancer in them. The doctor will cut out small pieces of tissue so they can be checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. The doctor may also wash the abdominal cavity with fluid, which is also checked under a microscope to see if it has cancer cells in it. Usually the doctor will remove the cancer and other organs that have cancer in them during the laparotomy. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment.

Many of the tests used to diagnose ovarian germ cell tumor are also used for staging. The following tests and procedures may also be used for staging:

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Transvaginal ultrasound exam: A procedure used to examine the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and bladder. An ultrasound transducer (probe) is inserted into the vagina and used to bounce high-energy sound waves (ultrasound) off internal tissues or organs and make echoes. The echoes form a picture of body tissues called a sonogram. The doctor can identify tumors by looking at the sonogram.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of tumor as the primary tumor. For example, if an ovarian germ cell tumor spreads to the liver, the tumor cells in the liver are actually cancerous ovarian germ cells. The disease is metastatic ovarian germ cell tumor, not liver cancer.

Many cancer deaths are caused when cancer moves from the original tumor and spreads to other tissues and organs. This is called metastatic cancer. This animation shows how cancer cells travel from the place in the body where they first formed to other parts of the body.

The following stages are used for ovarian germ cell tumors:

Stage I

Enlarge Three-panel drawing of stage IA, IB, and IC; the first panel (stage IA) shows cancer inside one ovary. The second panel (stage IB) shows cancer inside both ovaries. The third panel (stage IC) shows cancer inside both ovaries, and one ovary has a ruptured capsule. An inset shows cancer cells in the pelvic peritoneum. Also shown are the fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, and vagina.
In stage IA, cancer is found inside a single ovary or fallopian tube. In stage IB, cancer is found inside both ovaries or fallopian tubes. In stage IC, cancer is found inside one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and one of the following is true: (a) the capsule (outer covering) of the ovary has ruptured, (b) cancer is also found on the outside surface of one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes, or (c) cancer cells are found in the pelvic peritoneum.

In stage I, cancer is found in one or both ovaries. Stage I is divided into stage IA, stage IB, and stage IC.

Stage II

Enlarge Three-panel drawing of stage IIA, IIB, and stage II primary peritoneal cancer; the first panel (stage IIA) shows cancer inside both ovaries that has spread to the uterus and fallopian tube. The second panel (stage IIB) shows cancer inside both ovaries  that has spread to the colon. The third panel (stage II primary peritoneal cancer) shows cancer in the pelvic peritoneum. Also shown are the cervix and vagina.
In stage IIA, cancer is found in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and has spread to the uterus and/or the fallopian tubes and/or the ovaries. In stage IIB, cancer is found in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and has spread to the colon. In primary peritoneal cancer, cancer is found in the pelvic peritoneum and has not spread there from another part of the body.

In stage II, cancer is found in one or both ovaries and has spread into other areas of the pelvis. Stage II is divided into stage IIA, stage IIB, and stage IIC.

Enlarge Tumor sizes; drawing shows different sizes of a tumor compared to the size of a pea (1 cm), peanut (2 cm), grape (3 cm), walnut (4 cm), lime (5 cm), egg (6 cm), peach (7 cm), and grapefruit (10 cm).
Tumor sizes. The size of a tumor may be compared to the size of a pea (1 cm), peanut (2 cm), grape (3 cm), walnut (4 cm), lime (5 cm), egg (6 cm), peach (7 cm), or grapefruit (10 cm).

Stage III

In stage III, cancer is found in one or both ovaries and has spread outside the pelvis to other parts of the abdomen and/or nearby lymph nodes. Stage III is divided into stage IIIA, stage IIIB, and stage IIIC.

  • Stage IIIA: The tumor is found in the pelvis only, but cancer cells that can be seen only with a microscope have spread to the surface of the peritoneum (tissue that lines the abdominal wall and covers most of the organs in the abdomen), the small intestines, or the tissue that connects the small intestines to the wall of the abdomen.
    EnlargeDrawing of stage IIIA shows cancer inside both ovaries that has spread to (a) lymph nodes behind the peritoneum.  Also shown is (b) microscopic cancer cells that have spread to the  omentum. The small intestine, colon, fallopian tubes, uterus, and bladder are also shown.
    In stage IIIA, cancer is found in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and (a) cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the area outside or behind the peritoneum only, or (b) cancer cells that can be seen only with a microscope have spread to the omentum. Cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IIIB: Cancer has spread to the peritoneum and the cancer in the peritoneum is 2 centimeters or smaller.
    EnlargeDrawing of stage IIIB shows cancer inside both ovaries that has spread to the omentum. The cancer in the omentum is 2 centimeters or smaller. An inset shows 2 centimeters is about the size of a peanut. Also shown are the small intestine, colon, fallopian tubes, uterus, bladder, and lymph nodes behind the peritoneum.
    In stage IIIB, cancer is found in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and has spread to the omentum, and the cancer in the omentum is 2 centimeters or smaller. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes behind the peritoneum.
  • Stage IIIC: Cancer has spread to the peritoneum and the cancer in the peritoneum is larger than 2 centimeters and/or cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the abdomen.
    EnlargeDrawing of stage IIIC shows cancer inside both ovaries that has spread to the omentum. The cancer in the omentum is larger than 2 centimeters. An inset shows 2 centimeters is about the size of a peanut. Also shown are the small intestine, colon, fallopian tubes, uterus, bladder, and lymph nodes behind the peritoneum.
    In stage IIIC, cancer is found in one or both ovaries or fallopian tubes and has spread to the omentum, and the cancer in the omentum is larger than 2 centimeters. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes behind the peritoneum or to the surface of the liver or spleen.

Cancer that has spread to the surface of the liver is also considered stage III ovarian cancer.

Stage IV

Enlarge Drawing of stage IV shows other parts of the body where ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer, and primary peritoneal cancer may spread, including the lung, liver, bone, and lymph nodes in the groin. An inset on the top shows extra fluid around the lung. An inset on the bottom shows cancer cells spreading through the blood and lymph system to another part of the body where metastatic cancer has formed.
In stage IV, cancer has spread beyond the abdomen to other parts of the body. In stage IVA, cancer cells are found in extra fluid that builds up around the lungs. In stage IVB, cancer has spread to organs and tissues outside the abdomen, including the lung, liver, bone, and lymph nodes in the groin.

In stage IV, cancer has spread beyond the abdomen to other parts of the body, such as the lungs or tissue inside the liver.

Cancer cells in the fluid around the lungs is also considered stage IV ovarian cancer.

Recurrent Ovarian Germ Cell Tumors

Recurrent ovarian germ cell tumor is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the other ovary or in other parts of the body.

  • Updated: May 7, 2018

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