Benign tumors are noncancerous growths in the body. Unlike cancerous tumors, they do not spread to other parts of the body.
Benign tumors can form anywhere in the body. If you discover a lump or mass in your body that can be felt from the outside, it’s normal that you might immediately assume it is cancerous. For instance, women who find lumps in their breasts during self-examinations may become alarmed. However, most breast growths are benign. And, in fact, many growths throughout the body are benign.
Tumors can grow for a variety of reasons. Benign tumors are not caused by cancer. Tumors caused by cancer are called malignant or cancerous.
While the underlying causes for tumor growth can vary, the process by which they grow is the same. Normally, cells in your body will naturally refresh themselves by dividing. This allows for dead cells to be disposed of naturally. In the case of tumors, dead cells may remain behind and form a growth known as a tumor. Cancer cells grow in this way as well; however, unlike the cells in benign tumors, they also invade nearby tissue. Out-of-control growth of abnormal cells causes damage to these adjacent tissues and organs, and can lead to cancerous tumors in other parts of the body.
Not all tumors, cancerous or benign, show symptoms.
Depending on the location of the tumor, numerous symptoms could affect the function of important organs or the senses. For example, if you have a benign brain tumor, you may experience headaches, vision trouble, fuzzy memory, and more.
If the tumor is close to the skin or in an area of soft tissue, such as the abdomen, the mass may be felt by touch.
Depending on the location, possible symptoms of a benign tumor include:
- loss of appetite
- night sweats
- weight loss
- other symptoms that cannot be explained by other conditions
Benign tumors are diagnosed using a variety of techniques. The key in diagnosis is determining if a tumor is benign or malignant. This can only be determined with certainty through tests in a laboratory.
Your doctor may begin by performing a physical examination and collecting your medical history. He or she will also ask you about the symptoms you are experiencing.
The first diagnostic steps your doctor may take include ordering imaging tests so he or she can have the best view of the inside of your body. These help your doctor view the entirety of the tumor and the area being affected. Imaging tests to screen tumors include:
- ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to determine if a mass is solid or liquid. It is the same technology used on pregnant women.
- computed tomography (CT) scan: CT scans use a series of X-rays from different angles
- X-ray: X-rays have been used for decades to determine internal problems with the body. Because it uses small amounts of radiation, it’s not considered safe for pregnant women.
- magnetic resonance imaging: This test uses high-powered magnets to create detailed images of the body’s soft tissues.
Once your doctor has reviewed the images, he or she will typically order a biopsy to remove a small sample of tissue. The sample is then sent to a laboratory where it is examined under a microscope. A biopsy uses specialized equipment to remove a tissue sample through a small incision in the skin.
The laboratory results will determine if the tumor is cancerous or benign.
Your doctor may also order blood tests to check for the presence of markers in the blood caused by cancer.
Not all benign tumors need treatment. If your tumor is small and is not causing any symptoms, your doctor may recommend taking a watch-and-wait approach. In these cases, treatment could be more risky than letting the tumor be.
If your doctor decides to pursue treatment, the specific treatment will depend on the location of the benign tumor. Tumors may be removed for cosmetic reasons—if, for example, they are located on the face or neck. Other tumors that affect organs, nerves, or blood vessels are commonly removed with surgery to prevent further problems.
Tumor surgery is often done using endoscopic techniques, meaning the instruments are contained in tube-like devices. This technique requires smaller surgical incisions and requires less healing time.
If your tumor cannot be safely accessed for surgery, radiation therapy may be used to help reduce the size of the tumor or prevent it from growing larger.
Many benign tumors can be left alone if they show no symptoms and create no complications.
If you do not have your tumor removed, your doctor may have you come in for routine examinations or imaging scans to ensure the tumor isn’t growing larger.