My Little Greek Monster (tumor)
Last week, on mushrooms, my friend told me a story about a British woman who was pregnant and developed a "twin tumor" that was "stealing the life" from her and her baby. Needless to say, I totally lost my shit. I couldn't stop imagining being pregnant and having a science fiction character sucking the essence out of my body. After coming down and going home, I decided to look up the information while the floor wasn’t being all wavy and weird.
According to the Telegraph, 26-year-old Nicola Ellington, was the first woman on record to have a "teratoma" tumor--derived from the Greek word for "monster", Nicola's tumor had teeth and hair--while pregnant. Nicola's watermelon-sized "monster" developed in her chest and began crushing her lungs. Her doctor, Dr. Dawn Adamson, discovered the tumor and decided it needed to come out or else Nicola and her baby would die. The surgery was a success. Nicola and her unfortunately named baby girl, Layla, lived to make medical history.
As a woman, the process of pregnancy and birth has always succeeded in giving me a fair case of the wullies. My uterus is built to transform into a vessel for human life and it's my job to keep it clean for baby, which apparently means not smoking, not drinking, eating well, and puking all the time. The idea of going through all that trouble just to discover some grody Basketcase creature has been stealing my baby’s precious nutrients would drive me bananas.
Even after the frantic post-shroom Googling and gross-out teratoma image searching session, I still had some questions, so I met up with some med school buds of mine to find out about these weird little things.
Me: How do teratoma tumors work?
Med Student 1: Basically when you are a tiny embryo, all your cells have the potential to give rise to any specific tissue and eventually all the cells settle in and become something specific. But sometimes a handful of them linger and end up taking a wrong turn. Teratomas are most common in the ovaries.
So it's just undeveloped human cells?
Med Student 1: They start out that way, then they develop into the wrong thing for their location in the body
and do it in a sort of disorganized way.
Like a scrambled twin that got lost somewhere in the mix?
Med Student 1: They're still your cells, I wouldn't characterize them as a 'twin'. More like a very benign cancer that doesn't really go anywhere or do anything but sit there and get bigger.
How insane is it that Nicola Ellington's tumor was killing her baby? It's like that movie How to Get Ahead in Advertising only it was more like How to Get Ahead In Babytising, except it was also significantly less funny.
Med Student 2: The tumor wasn't really killing the baby. However, in order for a baby to grow, the female body produces a certain hormonal milieu. Teratomas are typically characterized by having a number of different cell lines at various stages of differentiation (or development). For whatever reason, I believe what happened was that one of these particular cell lines was especially responsive to some of the maternal hormones and used it as a growth factor. It wasn't really feeding off the maternal blood, or stealing from the baby. It was just thriving in the environment that pregnancy produced.
That’s still gross.
Med Student 2: That's what was harmful to the mother secondary to its size. It wasn't malignant, like a cancer, but it grew to a size where it started to press on her lungs and organs and that resulted in major problems. If it were to continue to grow there certainly could have been more serious consequences.
Termatomas seem so "human", are they?
Medical Student 2: They are certainly human in origin. They have human DNA.
You guys are obviously not as creeped out as I am. Does anything about the human body gross you out?
Med Student 1: Not really, but one time I saw a woman with advanced cervical cancer that had invaded into her rectum and she came to ER with heavy bleeding so we took her to the OR. It smelt awful.
Med Student 1: Rotting tissue mixed with stool. She was a really sweet lady and we helped her. You really do get used to unusual physical stuff very quickly.
Med Student 1: Like the first time I saw an operation to restore fractured facial bones. They use these big clamps that go through the nose and mouth to wiggle the roof-of-the-mouth bones around. It was so neat.