When you heard of the tumour, you may likely think of cancer. Both the terms "tumour" and "cancer" are often used interchangeably and is genuinely misleading. There lies a difference between these two medical terms.
A tumour is just an abnormal lump or mass of cells, but cancer is an uncontrollable growth of cells that may spread to other parts of the body and can be life-threatening. Some tumours can be cancerous, but all are not cancerous and harmless.
It is essential to differentiate between cancerous (malignant) and non-cancerous (benign) tumours for proper diagnosis and treatment. Let's dive in deep to know the differences and characteristics of both cancerous and non-cancerous tumours.
- What is a tumour, and how it forms?
- What are the types of tumour?
- What are benign tumours?
- What are malignant tumours?
- What are the key differences between benign and malignant tumours?
- Can tumours be prevented?
What is a tumour, and how it forms?
A tumour (or neoplasm) refers to an abnormal mass/lump of tissue.
The body constantly produces new cells to replace the old ones. As the novel cells form, the old cells die. Sometimes, malfunctioning occurs in the cellular DNA, majorly in genes that regulate the ability of cells to control their growth. Instead of dying off, they continue to proliferate abnormally, thus leading to a tumour formation.
These lumps of mutated and dysfunctional cells may trigger pain, invade organs, and spread throughout the body. However, not all tumours are cancerous, fatal, and aggressive. Some mutations result in rapid, unchecked growth, producing fatal tumours, while other mutations are less aggressive and form slow-growing tumours that are non-cancerous.
What are the types of tumour?
Tumours are usually classified in three categories depending upon the type of cells it contains:
- Benign tumours: These tumours do not have any cancerous cells
- Premalignant or precancerous tumours: These tumours have abnormal cells which can become cancerous
- Malignant tumours: These tumours contain cancerous cells
To determine the type of tumour, a physician takes a sample of the cells with a biopsy procedure, which is further analyzed for its properties under a microscope.
What are benign tumours?
Benign tumours are not cancerous. They tend to grow slowly and have clear distinct boundaries. These tumours are enclosed in a protective sac that prevents them from freely moving around. They don't generally invade the nearby adjacent tissues. They stay in their primary location and don't spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).
Compared to malignant tumours, benign tumours are typically not fatal and life-threatening. Once removed, benign tumours are unlikely to reoccur. Such tumours usually don't require treatment.
However, some benign tumours can be dangerous if they become large, restrict blood flow, grow near vital organs, or compress a nerve, causing pain or other medical complications.
Let us take the example of a sizeable benign lung tumour. This kind of tumour may compress the windpipe and pose difficulty in breathing. Such tumours would warrant urgent surgical removal.
Specific types of benign cancers can turn into malignant cancers. These are carefully monitored and might need surgical removal. Benign tumours do not secrete hormones and other substances (except pheochromocytoma [cancer of the adrenal glands located on the top of kidneys]). They usually respond well to treatment.
Examples of benign tumours include adenomas (cancer of the glandular tissue), fibroids (cancer of the uterus), and lipomas (cancer of the fatty tissue), myomas (cancer of the muscle) hemangiomas (cancer of the blood vessels). You can also explore the types of blood cancer.
What are malignant tumours?
Malignant tumours are aggressive and cancerous. They usually grow erratically, have irregular borders, and are more likely to invade/destroy the surrounding healthy tissues and organs. They can also travel locally and to other distant body sites through the lymphatic system and bloodstream.
These life-threatening tumours can form anywhere in the body, including the intestines, lungs, brain, uterus, blood, liver, skin, breast, etc. To prevent spread, such tumours require treatment (surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy or biological therapy).
Malignant tumours may reoccur after removal. The cancerous cells might come back in the same place or somewhere else in the body. Malignant tumours can secrete certain substances that result in fatigue and weight loss.
Examples of malignant tumours include:
- Carcinoma (cancer of the epithelial tissue).
- Blastoma (cancer of the precursor cells).
- Sarcoma (cancer of the connective tissue such as cartilage, bones, muscles).
Read, Tazemetostat receives FDA approval to treat epithelioid sarcoma.
What are the key differences between benign and malignant tumors?
|Benign tumors||Malignant tumors|
|Grow slowly||Grow rapidly|
|Do not invade nearby tissue||Invade nearby tissue|
|Typically not life-threatening||Can be life-threatening|
|Can’t spread to other parts of the body||Can spread to other parts of the body|
|May or may not require treatment||Requires treatment|
|Normally don’t return after removal||Can return after being removed|
Can tumours be prevented?
Tumours are difficult to prevent, as alterations in genes cause them. But, you can lower the risk of developing cancerous tumours by following steps:
- Limit your alcohol consumption, if you are an alcoholic
- Don't smoke, and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
- Eat plenty of fruits and leafy vegetables
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise regularly
- Protect your skin from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun as it may cause skin cancer
- Get regular check-ups and medical screening tests for early diagnosis and treatment
Now, you must have learnt the potential differences between benign and malignant tumours. Benign tumours pose no substantial health risks. But, a doctor may suggest removing them. On the other hand, malignant tumours can be more challenging to manage. However, an effective cure is generally possible in the early stages of cancer.
For this reason, it is vital for individuals to attend routine health check-ups, as these can make an early diagnosis of the tumour feasible. Early diagnosis offers you more management options and a potentially better outcome. Monitor any abnormal swollen masses in the body and be sure to discuss your concerns with a medical expert.
Also explore, Association between cancer and immunity!
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