March 3, 2008 at 5:00 AM ET
By Kara Chalmers
When my gynecologist told me that what he felt on my left ovary was most likely a teratoma, I immediately thought of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Remember the scene where Aunt Voula talks about a lump on her neck that contained teeth and a spinal cord? Well, she was talking about a teratoma, which happens to be Greek for “monster tumor.” In the movie, she actually says, “inside the lump was my twin.”
Ew. How gross. But how fascinating! I was almost embarrassed to tell my husband. But it turned out he was as enthralled as I was by the idea of a tumor that was brimming with random body parts. (My husband later begged my surgeon to keep my teratoma after removing it, so that he could study it more closely – in the name of “psychological closure.” The surgeon declined.)
That night, we compulsively surfed the Web for photographs, and let me tell you, teeth and spinal cords hardly scratch the surface. Teratomas (a.k.a. dermoid cysts) are made of germ cells that try to begin the process of making new humans, according to my gynecologist, Dr. Kyle L. Garner, who’s based in Sarasota, Fla. While germ cells that become eggs can be fertilized to become babies, germ cells that become teratomas, for reasons that are yet unknown, grow unregulated, he said. That’s why teratomas can have hair, eyeballs, brain matter, lung matter, skin, even bone.
You can be born with a teratoma, but most often, these masses aren’t detected until a woman’s reproductive years – often during pregnancy, since that’s when a woman would undergo an ultrasound, which could pick up a teratoma. Of the roughly 22,000 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed each year in the United States, about 15 to 25 percent are teratomas.
Among the photographs we found online was a particularly mesmerizing image of a red blob with a perfect, gleaming white molar protruding from its surface. But the funniest picture was that of a teratoma that someone had knitted. It was reddish and about the size and shape of a large cantaloupe, with yarn hair, teeth, hands and an eyeball – all on strings so that they could be pulled out or stuffed back inside.
Wow, I thought, as I wondered how much a monster tumor could weigh. Maybe I was actually five pounds skinnier!
I have to mention, too, that while I was alternately horrified and awestruck, the main feeling I experienced that night was relief, since I found out that while bizarre, ovarian teratomas are usually benign. From the very first “hmmmmm” that Dr. Garner had uttered upon feeling the 6-centimeter solid mass during a routine examination, I had been terrified of ovarian cancer. In fact, when I called my husband after leaving the office, I had burst into tears and wailed, “He found a lump!” and almost T-boned another car in my hysteria.
Of course, as Dr. Garner often repeated, there was no way to know for sure what the lump was until he was holding it in his hands. And regardless of whether or not they are cancerous, teratomas can cause ovaries to twist (not a good thing since that limits the blood supply) and they can rupture. So I scheduled surgery to remove the mass for as soon as possible and hoped and prayed Dr. Garner’s diagnosis was right. It was, and the mass was non-cancerous.
As far as teratomas go, mine looked pretty tame, according to Dr. Garner. “Like a big hairball soaked in pus,” he said matter-of-factly, as I gagged in his office. However, from a microscopic standpoint, my teratoma contained all sorts of things in addition to hair and the “yellowish, pasty, sebaceous material” that the pathology report referenced. There was also skin, sweat glands, lung tissue and cartilage, for example.
The one unfortunate thing – my teratoma’s removal did not result in a sudden drastic weight loss, as hoped. Maybe if it had just had some teeth…