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Difference between Malignant and Benign Tumours

Malignant or benign tumour: what makes the difference?

When you hear the word 'tumour' or, as doctors call it - 'tumour', you don't automatically think of cancer. The good news is that many tumours are actually benign, i.e. non-cancerous. But how do they differ and how can you tell if a lump, for example, is malignant or benign? More about the difference between malignant and benign tumours below!

A tumour is a cluster of abnormal cells. Depending on the types of cells it contains, a tumour can be:

benign - contains no cancer cells;

premalignant or precancerous - contains abnormal cells that are at risk of becoming cancerous;

malignant - contains cancer cells.


What malignant tumour and benign tumour mean

According to the oncologist, benign tumours show an expansive growth pattern (i.e. they tend to occupy a larger and larger surface area), often self-limiting (most of the time, the atypical cells are confined to the tumour itself, without spreading throughout the body). An example would be moles.

The most common types of benign tumours include:

Adenomas or polyps - develop into gland-like cells in epithelial tissue, a thin layer of tissue that covers glands, organs and other structures. Treatment depends on location and size. Some polyps on the colon, for example, need to be monitored carefully, because in some cases they can become malignant. Uterine polyps do not require treatment unless they become too large or if a pregnancy is intended. Prostate adenoma is the most common benign tumour affecting men over 60. Pituitary adenoma is the most common pituitary tumour and affects a large number of people, but in most cases does not reach a size that causes problems;

Fibroids grow in fibrous tissue. Uterine fibroids are common, affecting 20% to 80% of women by the age of 50. They do not necessarily need treatment. If they cause pain or other problems, your doctor may remove them surgically;

Haemangiomas are a type of tumour that arise from abnormal growths of blood vessels. They are the most common tumour in children. They tend to occur more often on the skin and in the liver. Although they should be monitored, haemangiomas do not cause problems and usually disappear without treatment;

Liposomes are slow-growing tumours that form in the fatty tissue under the skin. They can occur anywhere, but particularly in the neck, shoulders, armpits or torso. They are most common between the ages of 40 and 60. Treatment is not always necessary, but they can be removed if they bother you.


Premalign - between benign and malignant

Benign tumours do not necessarily turn into malignant tumours. Some, however, have the potential to become cancerous if abnormal cells continue to grow and divide uncontrollably.

Here are some unusual features of potentially premalignant tumours:

hyperplasia. Normal-looking cells reproduce faster than normal;

atypia. Cells appear slightly abnormal;

metaplasia. Cells look normal but are not the type of cells usually found in that area of the body.

Because it is difficult to predict which tumours will progress, the following tumour types should be carefully monitored or treated:

dysplasia. The cells appear abnormal, reproduce faster than normal and are not normally arranged;

carcinoma in situ. The cells are highly abnormal but have not yet invaded nearby tissue. This is sometimes called 'stage 0' cancer.

Colon polyps may be precancerous. Even though it can take 10 years or more to turn into cancer, they can be removed as a precaution.


Cancer: no longer benign, only malignant

When we already talk about cancer, we clearly mean a malignant tumour. Broadly speaking, types of malignant tumours include the following:


The most common types of cancer are carcinomas, which develop in epithelial cells. These include the following:

Adenocarcinoma - forms in fluid- and mucus-producing cells. This is the case for many breast, colon and prostate cancers;

Basal cell carcinoma - develops in the deepest layer of the skin;

Squamous cell carcinoma - occurs in cells just under the surface of the skin, as well as in organs such as the bladder, intestines, kidneys or stomach;

Transitional cell carcinoma - develops in tissue called the epithelium or urothelium. Bladder, kidney and ureter cancers can be of this type.

Read about modern prostate cancer treatment called HIFU here. Doctor: "Healthy tissue remains unharmed."


Sarcomas are types of malignant tumors that occur in bones, soft tissues and fibrous tissues such as:





blood and lymph vessels.

Germ cell tumours

Germ cell tumours occur in the cells that produce eggs or sperm. They may be found in the ovaries or testicles. They can also develop in the abdomen, chest or brain.


Blasts start in embryonic tissue and develop into developing cells in the brain, eyes or nervous system. Children have a higher risk of developing blasts than adults.



Malignant or benign? Biopsy shows clear difference

More imaging tests may also be needed to help confirm the diagnosis, such as:



computed tomography (CT) scan,

magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Blood tests may be helpful in establishing the diagnosis. However, biopsy is the only way to confirm or rule out the presence of cancer.


With correct and timely treatment, the malignant tumour is cured

Treatment of cancerous tumours depends on many factors, such as where the primary tumour is located and whether it has spread. Treatment options may include:




targeted therapy,

immunotherapy, also known as biological therapy.

The good news is that today's medicine has treatment plans for every cancer disease, especially in the early stages, that can cure or increase survival rates.

In the fight against cancer, the doctor-patient relationship, and the trust on which this relationship is based, is also very important. Iulia Z. is 37 years old. Two years ago, she discovered a suspicious lump above her left breast. Even though most of her family members were advocates of alternative treatment solutions, Iulia fought against the tide and opted for medicine. She had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction with back muscle, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Find Julia's full story here.


Benign or malignant skin tumours

To differentiate between benign skin tumours and malignant tumours, we can use the ABCDE rule:

A- asymmetry: if the two halves of a nevus (mole) do not resemble each other, that lesion should be checked.

B- borders: lesions with irregular, ridged, jagged edges should attract your attention.

C- colour: lesions that have several different shades or colours, from light brown to black, red, blue or white are considered atypical.

D- diameter: large moles, over 6 mm, should be examined by a specialist.

E- evolution: a mole that changes, increases in size, changes shape or colour, bleeds, crusts, should be seen by a doctor.


Recommended treatments for malignant prostate tumour

In patients without severe comorbidities, a localised malignant prostate tumour confirmed by biopsy should be treated either by surgery (radical prostatectomy) or by external radiotherapy (teletherapy), according to the medical oncologist.

"However, there are some low-grade tumours with relatively low PSA (prostate-specific antigen) values that are also best managed by observation. The same can apply to prostate cancers that occur in very old men or men with severe comorbidities."

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang J. Köstler, medical oncologist and haematologist

Prostate cancer is curable if diagnosed early, localised, and treatable with good results in most other cases. For these reasons, regular check-ups in men over 50 are extremely important.


Contact your Wiener Privatklinik today for more information on the topic and beyond! Our medical core competences include TraumatologyCardiovascular MedicineOrthopedics and more! We have our focus set on providing our patients with outstanding care, while providing our affiliated physicians and staff with optimal working conditions through top notch medical care, competent healthcare and modern hospital management.