How Can You Tell The Difference Between A Cyst And A Tumor?

When you feel a bump or lump on your body, your initial reaction is likely one of alarm. After all, that protrusion is not normal. Is it a cyst? Is it a tumor? How can you tell the difference and what steps should you take to address the situation?

The word "cyst" comes from the Latin word cystis and goes even further back to the Greek word, kustis, which means "bladder" (via Vocabulary). Cysts are "closed capsule or sac-like structures, typically filled with a liquid, semisolid, or gaseous material, much like a blister" as defined by Medical News Today. Cysts can form anywhere beneath the skin or within the body. There are a wide variety of cysts, which in most cases are benign.

The origin of the word "tumor" can be traced to the Latin verb tumere, which means "to swell" (via Online Etymology Dictionary). A tumor is different from a cyst in that it is inherently a solid mass as opposed to having sac-like properties filled with other substances. There are three primary categorizations of tumors: benign, meaning the tumor is localized and not life-threatening; precancerous, meaning the tumor requires treatment to prevent it from becoming cancerous; and cancerous, or malignant, which means the tumor can spread to tissues and glands and become life-threatening (via Cleveland Clinic).

Diagnosis and treatments

While tumors and cysts can sometimes be found in the same areas of the body, Healthline provides some general things to help identify key differences. For instance, if the growth feels firm and appears to be growing quickly, these are qualities more associated with a tumor. If, however, the growth is swollen, exudes a discharge, feels tender, and moves to the touch, these qualities are more indicative of a cyst.

"Cysts typically go away on their own and do not require treatment, although some people choose to have cysts surgically removed for cosmetic or pain management reasons," Dr. Yu Yu Thar, a hematology/oncology specialist and attending physician at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital tells The Philadelphia Inquirer. A doctor may ask you to undergo a sonogram, CT scan, mammogram, or other imaging technology. If the growth turns out to be a tumor, having one of these screenings will also help determine its severity. "For benign tumors, treatment is necessary only if the tumor becomes big enough to damage other organs. Surgery can effectively remove benign tumors. Malignant tumors always require treatment," Dr. Thar says.

While cysts and tumors each have some noticeable characteristics, if you have concerns about any unusual growths, especially if they persist, don't try to treat them on your own or assume they will eventually go away. "Cysts and tumors can appear anywhere on the body, and because determining the difference between the two can be difficult, people should seek medical attention if they notice an abnormal lump," Dr. Thar advises.