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What is a Skin Tumor?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A skin tumor is a type of tumor that develops on the epidermis. Tumors, including skin tumors, are groups of abnormal cells that grow, called neoplasm. People often associate a skin tumor with cancer, but in fact tumors don’t have to be cancerous, and the vast majority are not. Tumors are usually classed in three different groups: benign, pre-malignant, and malignant. Only malignant tumors are actually cancerous.

The different terms used can be a bit confusing, but they are essentially greater levels of specificity. A neoplasm is a group of abnormal cells, but these abnormal cells don’t necessarily form a lump. When a neoplasm forms a lump it is known as a tumor. If that tumor forms on the epidermis, it is known as a skin tumor. If the skin tumor that forms is malignant, meaning it has uncontrolled growth, invades nearby tissue, and may even spread to other parts of the body, then it is known as skin cancer.

A benign skin tumor will never transform into skin cancer, and so poses no cause for concern except perhaps an aesthetic one. Moles on the skin are a good example of this sort of skin tumor, and while many people get them removed because they find them unsightly, only some moles are cancerous. Uterine fibroids are another good example of a benign skin tumor. Some other forms of benign skin tumor include seborrheic keratoses, which look like small lesions stuck to the skin, acrochordons, more commonly known as skin tags, epidermoid or sebaceous cysts, which are round, keratin lined cysts of the skin, and dermatofibroma, which are small nodules that form on the skin as an inflamed circular area.

Pre-malignant skin tumors are not yet cancerous, because they don’t invade surrounding tissue. They are not, however, benign, because over time they will become malignant and demonstrate the same destructive properties that cancerous cells have. One common form of pre-malignant cancer is carcinoma in situ, where the cells are neoplastic, and do continue to multiply, but do not leave their confined space.

The most commonly thought of type of skin tumor is a cancerous skin tumor, as these are the most dangerous. Malignant skin tumors will, if left alone, likely spread throughout the body, metastasizing and eventually killing the host. Malignant skin tumors are treated with a wide range of treatments to try to destroy them, including chemotherapy, invasive surgery, and radiation therapy. Skin tumors often will spread first to surrounding lymph nodes, and in this case those lymph nodes need to be removed as well. So long as malignant skin tumors are detected early, treatment is usually quite effective and not terribly invasive or destructive.

Some things are looked at and treated as a skin tumor, when they are not, strictly speaking, a tumor of the skin. Lipoma is an excellent example of this, as it is subcutaneous, made up of adipocytes, create a hard nodule that can create an unsightly bump in the skin itself. Lipomas are usually extracted via minor surgery, with little to no scarring as a result.

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Discussion Comments
By TunaLine — On Sep 13, 2010

I've had a mole on my back since as long as I can remember, and although it hasn't grown, it's diameter is bigger than a pencil eraser, and it seems to be darkening in color.

Is this a skin tumor?

By googlefanz — On Sep 13, 2010

Unfortunately, pets often fall prey to skin tumors too.

Both dogs and cats get skin tumors, so if you're a pet owner, make yourself aware of the symptoms of cat and dog skin tumors.

The biggest baddie to watch out for is feline and canine mast cell skin tumors.

These are one of the most common types of skin tumors on dogs and cats.

The symptoms are an unusual bump, especially if it gets swollen. The bump can be either smooth or rough, or even ulcerated.

If your pet gets one of these lumps, then starts vomiting or passing blood in their stool, then you should take them to the vet immediately, as these can be signs of complications from a mast cell tumor.

However, there is a fairly high survival rate for pets with mast cell tumors, especially if you catch it early, so be vigilant about your pet's health -- they deserve it!

By closerfan12 — On Sep 13, 2010

My grandmother has had quite a number of skin tumors taken off over the years, although thankfully none were skin cancer tumors, all were benign. That's what comes of being red-headed and fair skinned and laying out in the sun when you're young!

But one of the things that I learned from her experience other than to wear sunscreen, is to be able to recognize the most common skin tumor symptoms.

A good reference is the ABCD standard used for moles. If you have a lump or a mole that is Asymmetrical, with an irregular Border, a varied Color, or a Diameter bigger than a pencil eraser, you should get it checked out.

Although that's by no means a complete diagnostic standard, keeping the ABCD in mind can save you a lot of grief down the road.

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