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Benign growths by definition are not cancerous. So, what is cancerous? Cancerous means that the mass or tumor is growing without control and invading nearby tissues or structures. When this growth moves from one part of the body to another, it is known as metastasizing.
So what is it when the tissue grows, but does not invade nearby tissues or structures? A benign tumor. Another way to think of benign tumors is as an overgrowth of tissue or cells. Some of these growths may change from benign to precancerous lesions, which means that they may develop into cancer in the future.
The most common types of benign tumors are:
Benign tumors are usually simply followed by close observation or monitoring by a physician. Unless these growths change from benign to precancerous or cancerous or cause symptoms, treatment is usually not required.
It is not known what causes benign tumors, precancerous growths, and cancers. However, all are characterized by uncontrolled cellular growth. Normally, specific genes within the DNA of cells have functions to regulate cell division. Genes involved in cell replication, cellular growth, and cellular survival are called oncogenes, while those involved in limiting cell growth and division—and induce cell death when necessary—are called tumor suppressor genes.
When cell DNA is damaged, these genes may be altered. The oncogenes are turned on—and the tumor suppressor genes are turned off. As a result, there is uncontrollable cell growth and possible cancer. These changes to the DNA of cells are caused by the environment, but changes or mutations to DNA can also be inherited. If these mutations in the DNA correspond to genes that are involved with effective and correct cell replication, a person’s risk for developing kidney cancers and other cancers may be increased.
As stated above, if these mutations cause changes in the cells that lead to invasion or damage to nearby tissue, the result could be cancer. Otherwise, a simply overgrowth of tissue with no damage to nearby body parts will result in a benign tumor.
The following factors may increase your likelihood of developing a benign tumor:
A diagnosis of a benign tumor will likely start with a visit to your primary care physician, who will obtain a thorough medical history and then perform a physical examination. Usually, a benign tumor will manifest as a lump or mass, and can be diagnosed with a simple history and physical exam. However, in some cases, your physician may utilize any of the following tools to arrive at a diagnosis, to confirm a diagnosis, or to rule out any cancerous features of the mass:
A CT scan also uses x-rays to generate an image, but it has several advantages compared to the chest x-ray. It will show the precise location, shape, and size of masses. In order to obtain even sharper images, some patients are asked to drink or receive IV contrast. This contrast makes some tissues appear brighter, which makes the images and the structures more apparent and easier to discern. Allergies to contrast medium may cause hives, flushing, shortness of breath, and low blood pressure. If you have had a reaction to contrast before, you should inform your physician. In addition to masses (such as cancers), it can show enlarged lymph nodes, which may have cancer cells. Many patients will have CT scans of the chest, abdomen, brain, and extremities. A CT scan may also be used to obtain biopsies of masses or cancers what lie deep within or nearby other vital structures, which is termed CT guided needle biopsy.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study also provides detailed soft tissue “pictures.” As opposed to CT scans, which utilizes x-rays, MRIs use magnetic radiowaves to generate images. MRIs are particularly useful for imaging the brain and spinal cord. Gadolinium, a contrast, is often used to produce even better MRI images. A specific MRI scan called an MRA uses contrast to assess blood vessels, which may be supplying nutrients to the precancerous/cancerous tissue.
Bone scans can also be performed to detect spread of cancer to bones. During this procedure, a radioactive dye is injected in the vein, where is it transported to areas of bone with abundant activity, which may occur in cancerous and non-cancerous states.
A simple chest x-ray or radiograph will usually be performed as it is convenient, cheap, and will reveal if the cancer has progressed to the lungs.
A biopsy may need to be performed to ensure proper diagnosis. During a biopsy, a small amount of tissue is removed from the suspicious mass and then assessed under the microscope. A biopsy is commonly performed as a fine needle aspiration, or FNA, which utilizes CT imaging and a long, thin needle to pierce the skin and to obtain a small tissue sample of the mass. A pathologist will then study the biopsy to determine if the mass is benign or malignant and will then identify the exact type of malignancy.
Symptoms of benign tumors will likely only result from what is referred to as mass effect. If the tissue growth itself is causing problems because of its size or location, it could be due to mass effect. Benign tumors may impinge on nearby tissues or limit the range of motion of joints.
Otherwise, benign tumors will likely be asymptomatic, or not symptomatic.
Prognosis refers to the likely course of a disease or ailment. Benign tumors are by definition not cancerous and thus generally carry excellent prognosis. However, if these growths are able to achieve significant growth in a perilous location, which may cause damage to blood or nerve supply in the body, the prognosis may worsen. Thus, it is recommended to have your physician follow your individual condition closely over time.
In general, benign tumors should not be a significant health hazard. However, it is important to understand your individual case and the potential course the growth could take. As stated above, seek regular medical care and follow these growths over time. Also, inform your physician if the growth changes significantly or becomes symptomatic.
In addition, it is helpful to consider the following:
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is an excellent source of information regarding screening for cancers. However, as benign tumors are not cancers, there is no recommendations for screening.
Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed preventative method to stop benign tumors from developing. However, these growths can progress to precancerous/cancer, thus, it is important to follow these tumors over time under the vigilance of your physician.
If you experience any changes in the characteristics of the tumor or it becomes symptomatic, contact your physician immediately.
As the vast majority of benign tumors are asymptomatic, treatment is unnecessary. Simple vigilance over time by you and a physician is sufficient.
However, if the tumor begins to cause symptoms or is a cosmetic concern, treatment may be offered. In the case of benign tumors, surgical resection (or removal) is usually all that is needed to completely cure the growth. Depending on where the growth is located, its size, and your preference, the surgical removal may be performed with simple local anesthetic (during which you will be awake but have the surgical area numbed), a nerve block and sedation (during which you will have the surgical area numbed with local anesthetic and then sedated or made sleepy with medications), or via general anesthesia (during which you are completely asleep with a breathing tube in place).
As the treatment for benign tumors are rarely needed, alternative and complementary medicine are terrific options to pursue if you so desire. Some seek acupuncture for general wellness and specific treatment in areas that may be affected by the tumor due to mass effect. Others seek out massage therapy to help alleviate stress and promote overall wellbeing. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a type of meditation that helps alleviate anxiety, stress, fatigue, and can help with general mood and sleep disturbances. Yoga has been found to improve depression, anxiety and stress.
If you are experiencing changes in your benign tumor or feel uncomfortable with the cosmetic appearance, you should seek medical attention.
Unless the symptoms are life-threatening, you can make an appointment within a reasonable time period and do not need to visit the emergency department.
Your medical team may consist of several healthcare professionals, including your primary care physician and possibly a surgeon if removal of the tumor is necessary.
When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:
Other useful resources to help you learn about benign tumors and cancers can be found at The National Cancer Institute
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