What's the difference between a tumor and a cyst?

Key Differences Between a Tumor and Cyst: What You Need to Know

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

When a new bump or lump appears on the skin or slightly beneath it, it’s natural to wonder about the cause. Lumps and bumps could be tumors or cysts, potentially even cancer. However, not every bump is going to be a malignant tumor that will require radiotherapy. Some might, but others could simply be a benign cyst. In addition, there are multiple types of tumors and cysts that may appear visible to the naked eye or by palpating the skin and muscles. Here’s what you need to know about tumors, cysts, their differences, and their risks to your health.

What Is a Tumor?

A tumor is a mass created from an accumulation of abnormal cells. Cells in the body have a pre-programmed cell life and, as the body ages, cells die. These cells are replaced by newer, younger and healthier cells. On occasion, an outside interference disrupts the cycle. Even though the body does not need new cells in this scenario, the cell becomes immortal (continuing to divide and multiply.) The continued growth leads to an increase in size. Depending on the location and effect of the tumor on the body, it may lead to health problems, including cancer.

Most tumors have two defining characteristics: they are fast-growing and firmer than the tissues surrounding them. Those characteristics will help you identify tumors so you can seek a professional opinion, but it is also important to understand a tumor is not necessarily cancer.

Types of Tumors

Three types of tumors exist, and each form has additional terminology to help identify the tumors size, state and location. In general, the three types of tumors include:

  • Benign tumors. Benign tumors are not cancerous and do not spread from their point of origin. The tumor will remain in its current form and location and, after removal, they generally do not return. Benign tumors in glands may also contribute to the excessive function of the gland, resulting in increased hormone production. An example of this would be a pituitary adenoma that secretes an excess amount of growth hormone.
  • Pre-malignant tumors. Premalignant tumors have the initial characteristics of a benign tumor, but their continued growth begins to exhibit the properties of cancer, making them a greater health risk.
  • Malignant tumors. This is the most severe form of tumor. Malignant tumors are cancerous. They grow, spread to other parts of the body, worsen with time and adversely affect the function of body tissues and organs.

There are times when it is difficult to place a tumor into one of these three categories. For invasive tumors residing within the body’s trunk, it may be impossible to categorize them definitively. Any diagnosis can occur during the middle of a tumor’s cycle, meaning it is possible to receive a diagnosis of a benign or premalignant tumor that could still become malignant.

Common Places Where Tumors Appear

A tumor can appear anywhere in the body. It is also possible to develop multiple tumors in different bodily systems that are benign and do not adversely affect function. The most obvious tumors can be felt by palpating or squeezing the area slightly and noticing a firm line. This is basically the same process used to perform monthly checks for breast cancer, as well as testicular exams for potential growths.

Common types of tumors and where they appear include:

  • Adenomas are tumors that arise from disruption to cellular cycles within glandular epithelial tissue. Epithelial tissue is the tissue covering glands, organs and body structures. For example, the thin membrane surrounding the lungs, also known as the pleura, could develop an adenoma. Furthermore, the development of polyps within the tissue is a type of adenoma. These tumors do not start as cancers, but have the potential to become cancerous. If an adenoma becomes cancerous it is then known as adenocarcinoma.
  • Fibroids and fibromas are tumors that arise from the connective tissue of the organs. One of the most common types of fibroid is found in the tissue creates a mass within the uterus. Uterine fibroids can cause unpleasant symptoms, including urinary incontinence, vaginal bleeding, general discomfort and pelvic pain. Fibroids may also have a soft or firm state, so their diagnosis can be difficult. The exact characteristic of the fibroid depends on the relative ratio of fibers to cells within the growth. If a fibroid does evolve into a malignant state, it is known as a fibrosarcoma.
  • Hemangiomas are tumors of blood vessels that may appear on the surface of the skin, resembling a red patch which can be quite large. They generally appear at birth and dissipate over several months or years. While they usually do not require treatment, those over 10 years of age may consider laser surgical removal for cosmetic purposes.
  • Lipomas are the most common type of soft-tissue tumor. They result from the continued growth of fat cells. While many are small, others can grow to be larger than expected. They are more common among those over age 40, and experts still disagree over whether they may change or become cancerous.

Premalignant tumors require close monitoring, and there are multiple types of these as well.  For example, actinic keratosis may appear as crusty, scaly, thick patches on the skin. Other types of premalignant tumors may appear on the cervix, requiring removal through freezing techniques, and tumors within the lungs. Even in these cases, they are generally more susceptible to treatment.

Malignant tumors have the potential to increase mortality, and the cellular replication rate results in the risk of spreading to other body systems and impacting health. Some common types include skin cancers, and sarcomas, which form from skin tissue or connective tissues respectively. These are the most likely tumors to recognize as a growth on the body.

What Is a Cyst?

A cyst is another type of growth that is formed by a sac-like pocket of tissue that is filled with fluid, air or other substances. Cysts can appear anywhere in the body or under the skin and most are benign. Cysts may appear as red and swollen masses, and they may contain a black center. Discharge from the cysts may be white, yellow or green and, depending on their location, they may be tender. In addition, a cyst might be able to move around under the skin. Here are a few things you should know about cysts:

  • Unlike tumors, cysts result from an injury or irritation to a cell.
  • A clogged duct within a hair follicle or pore can result in a cyst.
  • The gradual deterioration of tissues within the joints can cause a cyst to form.
  • Failure to shed dead skin cells can cause a cyst.

Ultimately, the cause of a cyst depends on where it is located and why tissues and dead cells did not go through a normal process of removal. For example, as older skin cells die, they shed and leave the body through normal activities. When the normal shedding of skin is inhibited, these skin cells begin to build, and the body’s typical immune response seals off the area to prevent an infection. Depending on the cyst type, location and appearance, treatment and removal may be necessary.

Common Areas Where Cysts Occur

More than a dozen types of cysts exist, depending on location and cause, and they include:

  1. Epidermoid cysts appear as small, slow-growing growths on the genitals, back, head, neck or face.
  2. Sebaceous cysts arise from a clogged pore and are often found on the neck, torso or face.  
  3. Breast cysts are fluid filled sacs inside the breast.
  4. Ganglion cysts appear near the tendons or joints.
  5. Pilonidal cysts form near the cleft of the buttocks and close to the tailbone.
  6. Ovarian cysts develop within the one or both ovaries.
  7. Chalazion may appear as small lumps, bumps or swelling on an eyelid.
  8. Baker’s cysts arise on the back of the knee.
  9. Cystic acne form following a severely clogged pore anywhere on the body.
  10. Ingrown hairs may become cysts at any follicle site.
  11. Pilar cysts develop from a protein buildup beneath a hair follicle of the scalp.
  12. Mucous cysts appear on the lip or within the mouth.
  13. Branchial cleft cysts develop prior to birth and appear as a large bump on the side of the neck or below the collarbone.

Diagnosing and Treating Cysts and Tumors

Diagnosing cysts and tumors is complex. Depending on the skill of the physician, it may be possible to recognize a cyst during a physical exam. To eliminate any uncertainty, more physicians use diagnostic imaging, such as ultrasounds, mammograms, CT scans and even MRI scans. These tests can help a physician determine whether a growth is a cyst or tumor, and additional testing may be necessary to determine whether it is benign, premalignant or malignant. Unfortunately, a biopsy is the only way to confirm whether the growth is cancerous or not.

If it turns out to be a cyst, a quick surgery, depending on location, can remove it. The same is true for benign tumors that impact nearby areas and cause unpleasant symptoms. If the growth is classified as a premalignant mass, the exact course of treatment will depend on personal preferences and the unique characteristics of the growth. When the growth is malignant, time is of the essence. Malignant growths require immediate action, such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Unfortunately, the diversity of benign, premalignant and malignant growths means seeing a healthcare provider is the only way to know for sure what type of cyst or tumor you’re dealing with, as well as what treatment options you have.

With that in mind, most known cysts and tumors can be left alone until the next scheduled doctor’s appointment, although you should schedule an appointment within the next month or two to ensure a timely diagnosis. If a person does not have a scheduled appointment, such as an annual physical health exam, it is important to make an appointment soon.

On the other hand, lumps that bleed, change color, grow quickly, appear rather swollen or rupture warrant a call to your physician immediately. Not only does seeing a healthcare provider ensure an accurate diagnosis, but it reduces your risk of infection following the “opening” of such growths. If the growth begins to ooze and bleed without stopping, it may be necessary to visit an emergency department.

See Your PCP for a Definitive Diagnosis and Treatment Plan; See an Expert When Necessary

Seeing a primary care physician is the best way to find out what a bump or lump is. Even if the issue warrants a referral to a dermatologist (skin doctor) or an oncologist (cancer doctor), the entire process of treatment begins with an accurate diagnosis. Your care providers are the first line of defense in managing tumors and cysts.

If something does turn out to be of concern, such as a malignant tumor, treatment options may be available and radiotherapy, one possible treatment option, has advanced significantly in recent years. It is now possible to plan and target treatment to minimize radiation exposure and reduce the impact of its side effects. For more information, those with a malignant tumor or cyst can see an expert in radiotherapy at Southeast Radiation Oncology Group (SERO).

The healthcare professionals at SERO understand the delicate blend of compassion, knowledge sharing and unyielding search for answers that empower better treatment outcomes. Submit your questions or request for an appointment online today, or feel free to give the office a call at 1-704-333-7376. Please remember privacy laws are in effect, so avoid sharing protected health information (PHI) through the online contact form. This will keep your information safe and secure.