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Difference Between Benign and Malignant Tumors

Leena Palande
Don't panic if you feel some growth in the breast or if a tumor is detected in the MRI. The tumor can be benign or malignant. This story explains the difference between benign and malignant tumors. It is necessary to know that having a tumor does not mean that you have cancer.
It is good that awareness about cancer and its symptoms is increasing day by day, but one should not panic after noticing a lump in a certain body part. A tumor is formed when a tissue starts growing abnormally. Uncontrollable and continuous multiplication of cells that does not assist any physiological function is termed as 'tumor'.
It is scientifically known as 'neoplasm'. Tumors can be benign, pre-malignant or malignant. Only malignant tumors represent cancer. Pre-malignant tumors indicate increased risk of cancer. The following section provides important information on different characteristics of benign and malignant tumors.

Benign Vs. Malignant Tumors

Most of the time, people misinterpret the term 'tumor' and use it as a synonym for 'cancer'. When the abnormally growing cells form tumors, invade other adjacent cell types, and spread around the body through blood or lymph, they are called malignant tumors.
A malignant tumor metastasizes (invades other organs) but a benign tumor does not. The tumor that remains confined to its origin (which cannot spread) is called benign tumor.
Benign tumor growth normally does not cause any problem and needs no treatment, but a large benign tumor can damage the adjacent tissue and the organ; and can prove to be harmful for them. A benign tumor causing some problem is removed surgically. In most cases, benign tumor, once removed does not grow again.
Certain benign tumors can later become cancerous (hence called pre-malignant), but such cases are very rare.
Malignant tumors contain cancerous cells. Malignant tumors can invade distant parts of the body, especially the lungs, liver, brain and bones. When a malignant tumor spreads and starts growing in the areas other than the area of its origin, it is called a 'secondary' tumor. Thus, growth of a malignant tumor means 'growth of cancer'.
Such tumors, when detected at early stages, can be removed surgically. Even after surgical removal, there are chances of recurrence, in case of malignant tumors. Treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy help to kill the remaining cancerous cells.

Benign Tumors

These days, women often face the problem of tumor in the uterus called 'fibroid'. It is a benign tumor of the smooth muscle and it is scientifically known as 'leiomyoma'. Types of benign tumors include:
  • Cysts (lumps filled with fluid)
  • Nodules (as seen in an arthritic)
  • Lipomas (lumps of fat cells)
  • Papilloma (develop from the skin or internal membrane of cells)
  • Hemangioma (lump due to excessive growth of blood vessels)
  • Fibromas and Fibroadenomas (lumps of fibrous tissues; or fibrous and glandular tissues)
  • Hematoma (lump formed by oozing blood in case of a large bruise)
Benign tumors can be life-threatening if they obstruct and inhibit the blood flow to vital organs like brain. Benign tumors are more common in young people than in elderly people.

Malignant Tumors

Chances of development of malignant tumors increase with age. Breast cancer and prostate cancer are some of the most common cancers in women and men, respectively.
The number of patients getting diagnosed with brain, bone, liver, lung, colon and uterine cancer is increasing day by day. Blood and urine tests, MRI, CT scan, ultrasound test and a biopsy help to diagnose cancers.
Depending upon the type of cell that the tumor resembles, cancer is classified as:
  • Carcinoma (tumors develop in epithelial cells)
  • Sarcoma (tumors in the connective tissue)
  • Blastoma (tumors grow in precursor cells or embryonic tissue)
  • Germ cell tumor (formation of tumor in pluripotent cells)
  • Lymphoma and Leukemia (development of cancer in blood-forming cells).
Brain tumors in children and adults can be benign or malignant, and both may lead to serious consequences.


Most of the time, benign tumors resolve on their own. If they are causing any problem, a minor surgery is required to remove them. But in most cases, people are advised to just 'wait and watch'.
However, malignant tumors (for instance, bone and soft tissue tumors) require treatments, which include strong drugs, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and a major surgery. For instance, a tumor bone is replaced with a donor bone and is fixed in its place with a metal plate and screws. An affected bone is sometimes completely replaced with a metal prosthesis.
As explained above, benign brain tumors can be life- or function-threatening. They can be the cause of damage to the important structures in the brain. But, in such cases, both surgery and radiation (radiation may be recommended for some benign non-invasive brain tumors) are difficult.
The treatment of any tumor depends upon the type, location, causes and symptoms. Cancerous tumors exhibit more serious symptoms and have a great emotional impact on the individual.
Now that you know how a benign tumor is different from a malignant tumor, you should not feel nervous or scared after discovering a lump in the breast or anywhere else. Instead, you should immediately consult a doctor and should undergo the necessary tests. Early diagnosis leads to better prognosis, which in turn ensures better quality of life.