Tumor vs Cyst: Differences, Diagnosis and Treatments

Posted on May 6, 2020 in Cancer

Written by Smith, Courtney

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When a new bump appears on the skin or slightly beneath it, it’s natural to fear the worst — cancer. But oftentimes, these protrusions are benign tumors or cysts.

Tumors and cysts are two types of growths. Though they look similar, they have very distinct causes, treatments, and risk factors.

A tumor is a mass of abnormal cells, whereas a cyst is a growth that’s filled with fluid, air, or other bodily substances.

In this article, we discuss the differences between a tumor and cyst. We also provide information to help you determine if your growth is cancerous.

What’s the Difference Between a Tumor and Cyst?

Tumor and cysts look similar, especially to the untrained eye. However, these growths are very different.

A tumor is a mass of abnormal cells that have built up somewhere in the body. Tumors can be benign or malignant and may pose serious health concerns, such as cancer.

A cyst is a growth filled with fluid, air, or other substances. In general, cysts are less likely to be a serious health risk than tumors, although they can be bothersome.

Though all lumps should be evaluated by a doctor, you should seek immediate assistance if your protrusion is fast-growing or firmer than the surrounding tissues. These are warning signs that your bump may be cancerous.

Are Cysts Tumors?

No, cysts are not tumors. Though these growths have similarities, there are key differences between a tumor and cyst. A cyst is a sac-like pocket of tissue that’s filled with fluid, air, or other substances. Comparatively, a tumor is an abnormal mass of tissue.

Is It Cancer?

A lump can be alarming, especially if it appears suddenly or causes discomfort. Luckily, cysts are almost always benign. Tumors, however, can be benign or malignant. Your doctor can confirm the presence of cancer through a biopsy.

Can a Benign Cyst Become Cancerous?

Typically a benign cyst does not become cancerous. If you have a benign cyst in your body, the chances of it becoming cancerous are incredibly low.

Can a Benign Tumor Become Cancerous?

Some benign tumors can become cancerous over time. That’s why all tumors should be closely monitored by a healthcare provider.

What Is a Tumor?

A tumor is a mass created from an accumulation of abnormal cells.

When cells in the body grow old or become damaged, they die. These cells are then replaced by younger, healthier cells.

When this process is disrupted, the old, damaged cells continue dividing and multiplying. This creates a tumor.

Some tumors can be felt by palpating the area slightly and feeling for lumps. This is basically the same process used to perform monthly checks for breast cancer.

The presence of a tumor doesn’t always indicate cancer. However, your doctor will likely recommend a biopsy to confirm that the growth is benign.

Classifications of Tumors

There are three main classifications of tumors:

  • Benign
  • Premalignant
  • Malignant

It can be challenging to predict how a tumor will behave in the future. For example, a benign tumor may become malignant. That’s why close monitoring is important.

Benign Tumors

Most benign tumors are harmless and are unlikely to affect other parts of the body.

However, benign tumors can press against nerves and blood vessels. If located in the endocrine system, benign tumors can also trigger the overproduction of hormones.

Premalignant Tumors

Premalignant tumors aren’t cancerous.

However, if they continue growing, they may exhibit cancerous properties. That being said, premalignant tumors must be monitored closely.

There are multiple types of premalignant tumors. For example, actinic keratosis may appear as crusty, scaly patches on the skin. Other types of premalignant tumors may appear on the cervix, requiring removal through freezing techniques.

Malignant Tumors

Malignant tumors are cancerous and can spread to other body systems, increasing mortality. Some common types include skin cancers and sarcomas.

Common Types of Tumors

  • Adenomas: Tumors that occur within glandular epithelial tissue.
  • Fibroids and Fibromas: Tumors that arise in the connective tissue of the organs; these can be difficult to diagnose.
  • Hemangiomas: Tumors of blood vessels that appear on the skin’s surface, causing red patches. May be removed for cosmetic reasons.
  • Lipomas: Tumors caused by the continued growth of fat cells.

What Is a Cyst?

A cyst is a sac-like pocket of tissue that’s filled with fluid, air, or other substances.

Unlike tumors, cysts are typically benign.

These growths may:

  • Appear as red, swollen masses
  • Have a black center
  • Be tender to the touch
  • Expel white, green, or yellow discharge

What Causes a Cyst?

Cysts develop for a number of reasons, including:

  • A clogged duct within a hair follicle or pore
  • The gradual deterioration of tissues within the joints
  • Failure to shed dead skin cells

Ultimately, the cause of a cyst depends on where it’s located and why the dead cells weren’t removed from the body.

Depending on the cyst, treatment and removal may be necessary.

Do Cysts Move?

While tumors are fairly stationary, cysts often move and change form when you touch them.

Common Types of Cysts

  • Epidermoid Cysts: Appear as small, slow-growing growths on the genitals, back, head, neck, or face.
  • Sebaceous Cysts: Arise from a clogged pore and are often found on the neck, torso, or face.
  • Breast Cysts: Fluid-filled sacs inside the breast.
  • Ganglion Cysts: Appear near the tendons or joints.
  • Pilonidal Cysts: Form near the cleft of the buttocks and close to the tailbone.
  • Ovarian Cysts: Develop within one or both ovaries.
  • Chalazion: May appear as small lumps, bumps, or swelling on an eyelid.
  • Baker’s Cysts: Arise on the back of the knee.
  • Cystic Acne: Caused by a severely clogged pore.
  • Pilar Cysts: Develop from protein buildup beneath a hair follicle of the scalp.
  • Mucous Cysts: Appear on the lip or within the mouth.
  • Branchial Cleft Cysts: Develop before birth and appear as a large bump on the side of the neck or below the collarbone.

When To See a Doctor

Most lumps can wait to be addressed until your next appointment with your primary care physician. From there, your general practitioner may refer you to a dermatologist (skin doctor) or a oncology doctor (oncologist).

However, you should schedule an appointment immediately if the protrusion:

  • Bleeds or oozes
  • Changes color
  • Grows quickly
  • Itches
  • Ruptures
  • Looks red or swollen

Since a physician understands the difference between a tumor and cyst, he or she can provide an accurate diagnosis. Seeing a doctor also reduces your risk of infection, especially if the growth is oozing or bleeding.

Diagnosing Tumors and Cysts

It may be possible to recognize the difference between a tumor and cyst during a physical exam.

However, to eliminate any uncertainty, most physicians will conduct further testing. This may include running diagnostic imaging tests, including:

  • Ultrasounds
  • Mammograms
  • CT scans
  • MRI scans

A biopsy may also be needed to determine if the growth is cancerous.

Treating Tumors and Cysts

The exact course of treatment will depend on various factors, including:

  • The location of the growth
  • Whether it’s a tumor or cyst
  • Whether it’s benign or malignant
  • Whether it’s causing uncomfortable symptoms

For example, if the growth is a cyst or benign tumor that’s causing discomfort, your physician will likely recommend surgical removal.

Cancerous growths are also often treated with surgery. However, your doctor may also suggest chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

My Growth Is Cancerous: Now What?

In the wake of a cancer diagnosis, you may feel lost, confused, or scared. Luckily, there are highly effective treatment options available to you. One of these options is radiation therapy, which uses radiation to target and destroy cancer cells.

At SERO, our radiation oncologists employ advanced technologies and techniques to improve patient outcomes. Our medical professionals are also dedicated to providing compassionate support throughout your cancer journey, from diagnosis to remission.

To learn more about our services, call 704-333-7376 today.