Benign tumors are noncancerous growths in the body. Unlike cancerous tumors, they don’t spread (metastasize) 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, you might immediately assume it is cancerous. For instance, women who find lumps in their breasts during self-examinations are often alarmed. However, most breast growths are benign. In fact, many growths throughout the body are benign.
The exact cause of a benign tumor is often unknown. A benign tumor develops when cells in the body divide and grow at an excessive rate. Typically, the body is able to balance cell growth and division. When old or damaged cells die, these are automatically replaced with new, healthy cells. In the case of tumors, dead cells remain and form a growth known as a tumor.
Cancer cells grow in the same manner, but unlike the cells in benign tumors, cancerous cells can invade nearby tissue and spread to 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:
- discomfort or pain
- loss of appetite
- night sweats
- weight loss
Doctors use a variety of techniques to diagnose benign tumors. The key in diagnosis is determining if a tumor is benign or malignant. Only tests in a laboratory can determine this with certainty.
Your doctor may begin by performing a physical examination and collecting your medical history. They’ll also ask you about the symptoms you’re experiencing.
The first diagnostic steps your doctor may take include ordering imaging tests so they can have the best view of the inside of your body. These help your doctor view the entirety of the tumor and the affected area. 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, an X-ray isn’t considered safe for pregnant women.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This test uses high-powered magnets to create detailed images of the body’s soft tissues.
After your doctor reviews the images, he/she will typically order a biopsy (unless there is certainty that the lesion is benign) to remove a small sample of tissue. The sample is then sent to a laboratory where it‘s 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 isn’t 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 surgery can’t safely access your tumor, your doctor may prescribe radiation therapy 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 don’t have your tumor removed, your doctor may have you come in for routine examinations or imaging scans to ensure that the tumor isn’t growing larger.