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Here’s the deal: A benign tumor is still a tumor. No, it’s not cancer, but it’s still an abnormal growth that shouldn’t be present in your body. And anything abnormal, including a benign tumor, needs to be monitored, at the very least.
Obviously, the diagnosis of a benign tumor is better than a malignant tumor. Malignant means cancer. A malignant tumor’s cancerous cells divide and spread and can be difficult or impossible to stop. Benign tumor cells don’t spread, but they can grow. A benign tumor becomes dangerous if it begins to impinge on vital organs, like the brain, or body structures, like a blood vessel. “Benign tumors don’t generally invade,” Dr. Fernando Garcia, MD., a pathologist at The Cancer Center Garcia says. “They usually push the normal tissue to the side.” They can also be painful and/or unsightly.
Although experts agree that no one knows for certain how or why a benign tumor forms, they do agree that if it’s benign, it will not spread. However, a benign tumor doesn’t mean you’re home free. “There is sometimes no clear dividing line between cancerous, precancerous, and non-cancerous tumors,” says Medical News Today. “In some cases, putting a tumor in a category can be an estimation, especially if the tumor is in the middle of the spectrum or changing rapidly. Some benign tumors can eventually become premalignant, and then malignant.”
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Where Does a Benign Tumor Come From?
Normally, when the cells in your body die or are damaged, they’re replaced with new ones. However, holds a popular theory on how a benign tumor occurs, when this process goes awry, new cells appear at an unusually fast rate and old cells don’t die. These cells grow into a benign tumor.
The Cancer Center’s theory is more specific: “Tumors grow because of a malfunction in cells’ DNA, mainly in genes that regulate cells’ ability to control their growth. Some damaged genes may also prevent bad cells from killing themselves to make room for new, healthy cells.”
No matter how you twist it, though, a benign tumor is not something we should expect to have.
The term “benign tumor” includes a host of other terms you may be familiar with, including:
- Desmoid tumor
- Nevi (mole)
- Skin tag
You may have recognized some of these terms and thought, “Hey—hat’s cancer.” It’s true that some benign tumors, like colon polyps or adenomas, are more likely than others to become cancer. In general, physicians term tumors as benign (noncancerous), malignant (cancerous), or precancerous (one that appears to be developing signs of cancer).
Symptoms of a Benign Tumor
You usually can’t see a benign tumor, although an abdominal mass might be felt through the skin and a uterine fibroid might be felt during a routine pelvic examination. It’s more likely you’ll simply realize something’s not quite right. Don’t ignore these symptoms.
Symptoms of a benign tumor depend largely upon where the tumor is. For instance, vaginal bleeding might indicate a uterine tumor. Dizziness could be a sign of a brain benign tumor. Symptoms of a tumor can include:
- Abnormal bleeding
- Gastric upset
- Loss of appetite
- Memory problems
- Night sweats
- Vision problems
- Weight loss
Any of these symptoms should prompt you to seek medical advice. The larger a benign tumor grows, the more difficult it will be to remove and the more likely it will cause you additional problems.
Benign Tumor Treatment
You may be asked to have a CT (computerized tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to determine whether a tumor is or isn’t cancerous. In the case of an intestinal polyp, the recommendation may be a colonoscopy, where the tumor can be snipped off immediately. The imaging also can be used by the surgeon to determine surgical margins (how wide an excision is need to remove the tumor).
It’s also likely you may need a biopsy. In a biopsy, the entire tumor or a sample of the tumor is removed surgically and sent to pathology for evaluation. There are three types of biopsies:
- Excisional biopsy: The entire suspicious area is removed.
- Fine-needle aspiration biopsy: Fluid or tissue is removed from the tumor using a needle.
- Incisional (core) biopsy: A small tissue sample is taken from the tumor.
The biopsy also may be “image-guided,” which means the doctor uses an ultrasound or CT scan to help him locate the area to sample.
If you’re told you need surgery for a benign tumor (or you request it because it’s visible), that will likely be the end of it. If you have surgery for a malignant tumor, the concern becomes whether the cells have already spread or were missed when the tumor was removed. Benign tumors do not spread, so after-surgery treatments do not include chemotherapy or radiation.
All tumors removed during surgery will be sent for pathology, regardless of whether the surgeon believes the mass is a benign tumor or malignant. Pathology is the only way to know if it is truly a benign tumor.
Sometimes a benign tumor can be deemed inoperable. In other words, the risk involved in removing the tumor is higher than the potential damage of the tumor itself. A brain benign tumor is a classic example.