A cancerous tumour that develops from the placenta after a pregnancy

  • Affects females of childbearing age
  • Genetics and lifestyle are not significant factors

A choriocarcinoma is a rare cancerous tumour that occurs in 1 in every 20,000 pregnancies. The tumour develops from the placental tissue and usually arises from a noncancerous placental tumour called a hydatidiform mole (see Molar pregnancy). A choriocarcinoma may also occur after an ectopic pregnancy or rarely after childbirth or termination of pregnancy if some placental cells remain. Occasionally, the tumour may not develop until months or even years after pregnancy. The main symptom is persistent vaginal bleeding. If left untreated, the tumour grows quickly, and the disease spreads first to the walls of the uterus and then to other organs such as the liver.

What might be done?

Choriocarcinoma is usually diagnosed by blood or urine tests to measure levels of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG). HCG is normally produced by the placenta in pregnancy, but extremely high levels of the hormone are associated with a choriocarcinoma. Women who have had a molar pregnancy, and are therefore at particular risk of the disease, are given regular tests to measure the levels of HCG. Women who have had persistent bleeding after childbirth, a termination, or an ectopic pregnancy may also have their HCG levels checked. If HCG levels are found to be high, ultrasound scanning will be carried out to look for a tumour. If choriocarcinoma is confirmed, further tests, such as CT scanning of the abdomen and blood tests to assess liver function, may be arranged to check whether the disease has spread.

Choriocarcinoma is usually treated with chemotherapy, whether or not the disease has spread to other organs. Rarely, a hysterectomy may be necessary. Most women recover completely following treatment.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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