Choriocarcinoma is a rare type of cancer. It usually develops from cells that remain inside the body after a pregnancy. In the vast majority of cases, choriocarcinoma is curable.

The outlook for people with this condition is generally very good, although it can sometimes cause complications.

In this article, we discuss choriocarcinoma in more detail, including its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. We also explain how it might affect people in the long term.

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Gestational choriocarcinoma, which develops in the uterus, accounts for the majority of choriocarcinoma cases. It is a rare form of gestational trophoblastic disease (GTD).

GTDs are tumors that grow from abnormal cells inside the uterus. These tumors can form after a normal pregnancy, abortion, or pregnancy loss. Sometimes, they can develop years after the pregnancy.

GTDs develop from the cells that would usually become the placenta during pregnancy. These cells, called trophoblastic cells, help the embryo attach itself to the uterus and form the placenta.

In the United States, about 1 in 40,000 pregnant people will go on to develop choriocarcinoma.

The tumors grow quickly and can spread through the blood to other parts of the body, including the:

  • lungs (most common)
  • liver
  • brain
  • kidney
  • bowel

Sometimes, males can develop choriocarcinoma in the testicle, which doctors call nongestational choriocarcinoma. It is an extremely rare type of testicular cancer. Every year, there are about 0.8 cases of the tumor per 100,000 males.

Doctors can almost always cure gestational choriocarcinoma with chemotherapy. The survival rates range from about 90 to 100%, depending on a person’s risk factors.

The symptoms of gestational choriocarcinoma may include:

  • bleeding from the vagina
  • infections that cause vaginal discharge, pelvic cramps, and fever
  • swelling around the stomach area

Choriocarcinoma tumors can spread to other parts of the body, especially the lungs. Signs that this may have happened include:

  • coughing up blood
  • dry cough
  • chest pain
  • breathing difficulties

According to the American Cancer Society, choriocarcinoma does not always cause symptoms.

However, doctors may suspect it if a person has a positive pregnancy test, but there is no fetus on the ultrasound.

Doctors will usually give a person a physical examination. They will also ask questions about the person’s medical history, such as their current and previous pregnancies.

They will then take blood or urine samples and send them to a laboratory. The lab will test these for a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG).

Trophoblastic cells make hCG, so it is usually only present in pregnant people. In fact, it is the same hormone that pregnancy tests detect. If a person has hCG in their blood and urine but is not pregnant, this may be a sign of choriocarcinoma.

The doctor may also carry out imaging tests, such as ultrasounds, X-rays, or MRI scans. These tests allow them to check inside the body for a tumor and see whether it has spread.

If doctors suspect that the tumor has spread, they may take a spinal fluid sample. They do this using a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap.

Doctors typically treat gestational choriocarcinoma with chemotherapy. It works by either killing the cancerous cells or stopping the tumor from growing.

Some people might need more than one type of chemotherapy.

If the tumor has spread, the person might also need radiation therapy and surgery.

In many cases, surgeons will be able to remove the tumor and any abnormal tissue. In older females who will not be having children in the future, doctors may recommend a hysterectomy, which is a procedure that removes the uterus. Removing this organ helps ensure that the cancer does not come back.

Treatment with chemotherapy is usually very effective, with survival rates approaching 100%.

People who have had choriocarcinoma will usually need to have regular blood tests for 1–2 years after treatment.

During this time, they should avoid becoming pregnant. The Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) says that conceiving within 12 months of completing chemotherapy can increase the risk of pregnancy loss. It can also make a tumor difficult to spot if it occurs again.

In most cases, chemotherapy does not cause any long-term complications.

However, people who receive more than one type of chemotherapy might experience an earlier menopause. The FWC notes that this may also increase the person’s risk of developing other cancers, including colon cancer and breast cancer, more than 25 years later.

After treatment, most people will still be able to have a normal, healthy pregnancy.

Anyone who experiences the symptoms that this article lists or suspects that they may have choriocarcinoma should speak with a doctor straight away.

Choriocarcinoma is a rare type of cancer that develops from trophoblastic cells that stay in the uterus after pregnancy. It can grow very fast and spread around the body. However, doctors can usually treat it.

Choriocarcinoma happens in about 1 in every 40,000 pregnancies. In rare cases, it can develop in males as a rare type of testicular cancer.

The outlook for someone with choriocarcinoma who receives treatment is very positive.

The most common treatment is chemotherapy. Some people with the cancer will also need radiation therapy, surgery, or both.

The majority of people who have had gestational choriocarcinoma will still be able to conceive and have a normal, healthy pregnancy after treatment.