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What is Malignant Cancer?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Malignant cancer is any form of cancer or growth that can spread to other parts of the body in a process called metastasis. It is compared to benign growths or cancers that do not easily spread to other parts of the body and may be much easier to treat. Malignant can be defined as progressive, bad, and resistant to any form of treatment, but it shouldn’t be understood as necessarily fatal. Caught early, many forms of cancer can be treated through removal of tumors and additional measures like chemotherapy and radiation.

Any part of the body can play host to a malignant cancer. On the skin, cancerous cells called melanomas can form, and these are often extremely dangerous. Because of the tendency for malignancy to metastasize, people can end up with cancerous groupings, often called mets, all over the inside of the body. By the time a melanoma is identified, cancerous cells may have invaded major organs, and the condition is sometimes past the point of successful treatment. For this reason, and due to the relatively common incidence of skin cancer, people are advised to let doctors know at once if a mole has changed in shape or size or if a new growth has suddenly appeared on the skin.

At the very same time, benign cancers can also appear on the skin and these are usually called basal or squamous cell cancers. They are not malignant cancers and will continue to grow in the skin tissue. Such cells can’t migrate to other parts of the body or the insides of the body. These skin cancers still need attention and should be removed, but they are not generally indicated as causing fatality.

Forms of malignant cancer don’t just affect the skin. Tumors can grow in bones, soft tissue, the blood, organs, or the brain and brainstem. At issue in curing any of these is how quickly the cancer can spread elsewhere and how possible it is to fully locate or remove cancerous cells. This is why when someone has breast cancer, a full mastectomy might be recommended. It’s one way of making sure that all cells are removed so they don’t move out to the body and begin to make new tumors in other areas. On top of surgical removal, oncologists usually recommend radiation or chemotherapy to kill any remaining cells so they don’t spread.

The removal of a breast is traumatic and undesirable, but is often necessary. Removing the breast doesn’t, beyond surgery, endanger life, because a breast is not necessary to life, and it may instead save life. Some types of malignant cancer invade vital organs in such a way that they cannot be surgically removed without risking life. Those who develop lung or brain cancer don’t always have the option of surgical treatment due to tumor location, and the only treatment could be radiation or chemotherapy. Unfortunately, this treatment is not always effective and malignant cells may still spread, ultimately resulting in death.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon278893 — On Jul 09, 2012

What is the difference between chemotherapy and radiation?

By Hilliards — On May 25, 2011

@UpnDown - Glad to hear your friend caught it early. In one of my recent courses we talked about some modern imaging techniques to help detect before it's too late.

Cancer picture are compared to patient's photos to determine all kinds of things. Severity, metastasis, location. Ingenious stuff, and hopefully available to everyone soon.

By UpnDown — On May 24, 2011

I never realized that almost all the parts of our body can become cancerous. I think knowledge is power when it comes to diseases like cancer. I had a friend who frequently goes to the doc and caught melanoma in it's very early stages before cancer symptoms. He's all better now.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia...
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