Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 13, 2016

A tumor is an abnormal mass of tissue or swelling of a part of the body without inflammation. It can be benign (non-cancerous), pre-malignant, or malignant (cancerous).


Definition & Facts

Benign tumors are typically confined to one area of the body and non-life-threatening though can cause problems if they press upon other body tissue or obstruct organ function. Pre-malignant tumors may not spread or harm surrounding tissue immediately but can eventually turn into cancer. Malignant tumors, also called cancer, destroy tissue and can spread throughout the body, are more difficult to diagnose, and can be fatal. Cancer can occur in any part of the body, and there are over 100 types of cancer.

Symptoms & Complaints

Symptoms for tumors vary widely due to the different kinds of tumors, where they are located, and how large they are. Some tumors that grow on or near the surface of the skin can be clearly visible and/or physically felt.

When growing internally, both benign and malignant tumors can be difficult to detect because they can be either asymptomatic or their symptoms are similar to those caused by many other conditions. However, many of the following symptoms together can be a potential red flag for the presence of malignant tumors:


Benign tumors can result from abnormal cell growth (neoplasia) which is usually caused by cell mutations in DNA. The mutations that cause malignant tumors have many possible causes, including hereditary causes and linkages to certain lifestyle risk factors. For instance, smoking greatly increases the risk for lung cancer just as too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer. Other causes and risk factors of cancer include leading a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol consumption, age, family history, other health conditions, and environmental conditions.

Diagnosis & Tests

If signs and symptoms are present, tests may be conducted in order to diagnose or rule out cancer. Typically, cancer is diagnosed by an expert looking at a tissue sample of the tumor, called a biopsy, under a microscope. Tests that examine the cells' protein make-up and DNA can also aid in diagnosis.

Types of biopsies that can be done in diagnostic testing include:

Treatment & Therapy

Depending on their size, location, and the health risk they pose, benign tumors can be excised, or surgically removed. If they do not pose a health risk, they can be left alone. Surgery is often used to remove malignant tumors if they can be isolated enough to extract all at once. Surgeons typically try to remove as much of the cancer as possible, especially if the surgery will be followed by another method of treatment. Radiation and chemotherapy are used quite often to destroy cancer cells.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

While there is no one cause of cancer, there are several risk factors that increase the likelihood of a diagnosis, and many of these risk factors are preventable and manageable. Quitting smoking, for example, decreases the risk of a lung cancer diagnosis. Leading a healthy lifestyle, being moderately active, and reducing alcohol consumption can decrease the risk of developing malignant tumors throughout the body.

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