What is the Difference between a Tumor and Cancer?

07 Mar, 2024

What is Tumor?

A tumor refers to abnormal cellular growth. Benign tumors are non-cancerous, often localized, and usually have minimal threat to health unless they exert pressure on vital structures. Malignant tumors are characterized by uncontrolled cellular growth and division, invasion into surrounding tissues, and metastasis to distant organs. Causes range from genetic mutations to environmental factors like tobacco and UV exposure. The diagnosis of a tumor is made with the help of imaging scans, biopsies, and molecular tests. Treatment interventions vary and include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.

What are the Different Types of Tumors?

Understanding the different types of tumors is essential for accurate diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment planning. From benign growths to malignant tumors that are capable of metastasis, each tumor type presents challenges to the doctors. Some of the types of tumors are:


Malignant tumors are generally referred to as cancer. These tumors, or cancerous lumps, are characterized by uncontrolled cell growth, invasive behavior, and the potential to spread to distant organs. These aggressive tumors cause significant health risks, interfere with normal tissue function, and may cause debilitating symptoms. They may occur due to genetic mutations or environmental factors. Malignant tumors evade the immune system, divide and grow uncontrollably, and disrupt the surrounding tissues, leading to signs of cancer.


Non-malignant or non-cancerous tumors are benign growths or abnormal cell masses that do not invade nearby tissues or metastasize to distant organs. While patients may have non-malignant tumor symptoms depending on their size and location, they generally have relatively fewer health complications than malignant tumors. These tumors typically have slow growth rates and may remain asymptomatic for prolonged periods.


Precancerous tumors are also known as pre-neoplastic lesions. They represent abnormal cell growth with the potential to develop into cancer if left untreated. These lesions have atypical cellular changes, suggesting a progression towards malignancy. Detection and monitoring of precancerous tumors support early intervention and play a pivotal role in preventing the development of invasive cancer.

What is Cancer?

Cancer occurs when the cells grow uncontrollably, form masses, and spread to nearby and distant organs. It can affect tissue or organs, disrupt normal bodily functions, and result in severe health complications. Causes include genetic predispositions, environmental factors like tobacco and ultraviolet radiation, and lifestyle choices. Commonly used cancer diagnosis techniques to determine cancer types and stages include imaging, biopsies, and molecular tests. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.

Types of Cancer

Cancer is characterized by the abnormal growth of cells in different body parts, each with unique characteristics. Understanding the differences in these characteristics is vital for accurate diagnosis and customized treatment strategies. Some of the types of cancer are:


Carcinomas are the most common type of cancer. It initiates in the epithelial tissues lining organs and body surfaces. They include squamous cell carcinomas (skin, lungs, and esophagus), adenocarcinomas (glandular tissues), and basal cell carcinomas (skin). Early detection through screening techniques like mammograms and Pap smears enhances treatment outcomes.


These cancers develop in connective tissues, such as bones, muscles, fat, and blood vessels. They are relatively less common compared to carcinomas. Types include liposarcoma (fat), osteosarcoma (bone), and leiomyosarcoma (smooth muscle).


It is a cancer of the blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and lymphatic system. The disease is characterized by the abnormal production of white blood cells. Types include acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).


These are cancers originating in the lymphatic system. They comprise Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), with NHL being more common. Treatment includes chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and stem cell transplantation.


It is a type of skin cancer originating in melanocytes. Melanocytes are the cells that produce melanin. It can develop on normal skin or from existing moles. Melanoma is highly aggressive and prone to metastasis if not detected early.

Top 4 Differences Between Tumor and Cancer

Tumor and cancer are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings in medical terminology. It is important to understand the differences between tumors and cancer. The following are the crucial aspects of tumor vs cancer:

Cancer is a disease…tumors can be

Cancer is a malignant disease that can spread to various parts of the body and cause various health complications. Tumors, on the other hand, refer to abnormal growths, which may be benign or malignant. While all cancers are tumors, not all tumors are cancerous; some may be benign and pose minimal health risks.

Cancer is made up of malignant cells, while tumors are not always

Cancer consists of malignant cells that proliferate uncontrollably, forming invasive tumors capable of metastasis. In contrast, tumors can be benign or malignant; benign tumors cannot spread.

Cancer can be deadly, tumors do not have to be

Cancer, with its ability to spread to nearby and distant organs, can be life-threatening, often leading to severe health complications, including death, if untreated. In contrast, benign tumors may cause health complications that may not necessarily be life-threatening.

Cancer can lead to metastasis, tumors don’t always

Cancer has the potential to metastasize and significantly affect the prognosis. In contrast, tumors do not always metastasize. While malignant tumors can spread, benign tumors typically remain localized and do not invade nearby tissues or metastasize.

What are the Causes or Sources of Cancer?

The causes of cancer involve an interplay of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Genetic mutations acquired during life or inherited from parents can disrupt normal cell growth regulation, leading to cancer. Environmental exposures such as tobacco smoke, ultraviolet radiation, and carcinogenic chemicals may also lead to DNA damage and thereby increase cancer risk.

Lifestyle choices like lack of physical activity, poor diet, and excessive alcohol consumption also contribute to developing cancer. Chronic infections from viruses like HPV and hepatitis B and C can predispose individuals to certain cancers. Understanding and mitigating these risk factors through preventive measures, screening, and early detection are important.

Types of Genes that Cause Cancer

Numerous types of gene mutations can contribute to an increased risk of certain cancers. Activation of oncogenes, like EGFR and HER2, results in excessive cell growth. Tumor suppressor genes regulate cell division and repair DNA damage. Mutations in tumor suppressor genes may cause uncontrolled growth. DNA repair genes safeguard genomic stability; defects in DNA repair genes, like BRCA1/2, increase cancer risk. Fusion genes are formed from abnormal gene rearrangements. These can promote cancer development, such as BCR-ABL in chronic myeloid leukemia.

How Does Cancer Spread?

Cancer spreads through metastasis, wherein cancer cells break free from the primary tumor, invade nearby tissues, enter blood or lymphatic vessels, and spread to distant sites in the body. Once at a secondary location, cancer cells multiply, forming new tumors. The occurrence of metastasis depends on the complex interactions between cancer cells and their microenvironment, involving cell adhesion molecules and signaling pathways. Metastasis contributes significantly to cancer morbidity and mortality. Understanding the mechanisms underlying metastasis is essential for developing effective strategies to prevent and treat advanced disease.

Treatment of Tumor vs Cancer

Treatment for benign and malignant tumors depends on their size, location, and potential impact on health. Benign tumors often require monitoring. However, they may be surgically removed if they cause symptoms.

Cancer, on the other hand, necessitates more aggressive treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy, customized to cancer type, stage, and patient factors. Unlike in the case of benign tumors, cancer treatments aim to eradicate cancer cells, prevent recurrence, and prolong survival. Multidisciplinary approaches are implemented to optimize outcomes and routinely monitor for tumor recurrence or cancer progression.

Bottom Note

It is necessary to have a basic understanding of the various aspects associated with tumor vs cancer. Being aware of the differences between tumors and cancer aids patients in making informed health decisions and helps doctors deliver the right kind of treatment. Be it a benign tumor or a malignant one, timely intervention and personalized care are essential for effective management.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Do all tumors turn into cancer?

No, not all tumors turn into cancer. While some tumors are benign and are not a threat to health, others may progress to become malignant and develop into cancer.

  1. Can you have a tumor but not cancer?

Yes, it is possible to have a tumor that is not cancerous. Benign tumors are non-cancerous growths that typically do not invade nearby tissues or metastasize to other body parts.

  1. Can you tell if a tumor is cancerous without a biopsy?

A biopsy is usually required to determine if a tumor is cancerous. Biopsies involve obtaining a tissue sample for examination under a microscope to confirm the presence of cancer cells.

  1. Do tumors hurt when pressed?

Not all tumors may cause pain when pressed. However, some do, and whether they cause pain depends on various factors, including their location, size, and whether they are pressing on nearby nerves or tissues.

  1. How fast can a tumor grow?

The growth rate of a tumor varies widely and depends on factors such as tumor type, location, and patient characteristics, ranging from slow-growing to rapidly proliferating tumors.

  1. Is a tumor as bad as cancer?

Tumors can be either benign or malignant. Benign tumors are usually not as harmful as cancerous ones, which have the potential to invade and spread to other tissues.

  1. Can the body destroy tumors?

The body's immune system can sometimes recognize and destroy tumors through processes like immune surveillance and the activation of immune cells to target and eliminate cancerous cells.

  1. What tumor is cancerous?

Tumors that can spread to other parts of the body are cancerous. These cells can divide, proliferate, and spread to other tissues.

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