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What is the Difference Between Benign, Precancerous, and Malignant?

Michael Pollick
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The discovery of a subcutaneous lump or an unusual skin tag or mole can be a source of concern for most people. A professional examination of the growth or tumor often provides answers about its nature and its potential for future harm. A tumor or growth could be considered benign, precancerous, or malignant depending on its structure and root cause. The best case scenario would be a benign tumor, which poses little to no harm, while the worst case scenario would be a malignant tumor, indicating a dangerous cancerous growth has already developed.

A benign tumor or growth differs from a malignant or precancerous growth in one major respect: the tumor's structure is self-contained, meaning it will not seek out other tissue to consume or spread to other parts of the body. This does not mean that the tumor will be completely painless or not grow in size, but it will not destroy surrounding tissue and will not become malignant over time. Many of these tumors or growths can be addressed medically or surgically without the need for cell-killing radiation or chemotherapy regimens.

A tumor or growth diagnosed as malignant, however, is by definition a cancerous situation. A malignant tumor contains cells that have begun to grow uncontrollably and actively seek out more tissue to consume. A malignant growth is not self-contained like a benign growth, and it will continue to spread as long as it continues to find healthy tissue. Pieces of a malignant tumor could break off from the original source and spread to other parts of the body as well.

There is also a condition which falls somewhere between benign and malignant. Certain growths or tumors have the potential to become malignant, but their cell growth has not yet become uncontrolled. A number of skin tags and moles fall under this description of precancerous. A precancerous tumor or growth is not completely harmless, but it has not become aggressive enough to be considered malignant. The precancerous growth may respond well to medical or surgical intervention, but a medical professional may want to observe its behavior before risking a conversion to full-blown malignancy.

In short, a benign tumor is self-contained and should pose no long-term harm. A malignant tumor contains active cancer cells and may require aggressive treatment before long-term damage occurs. A precancerous tumor has the potential to become malignant, but in its current state is only a cause for heightened concern and closer observation.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon1002778 — On Feb 14, 2020

I'm surprised at the many attempts to redefine what was stated in this article, when it has been clearly defined. Simply read, understand, and accept.

By DylanB — On Jan 22, 2013

@OeKc05 – I've heard of those before! I knew a kid in school with benign epilepsy, and he had this sort of seizure now and then.

It involved his face muscles. His face would either start twitching, or he would lose control of his muscles for awhile and he would start drooling.

He also got some seizures in his sleep that involved his whole body. He told me one time that his mother used to walk in and find him having one, and she would wake him up. He never remembered having them.

By wavy58 — On Jan 21, 2013

@shell4life – You are right about that. My dad spent a lot of time in the sun as a young adult, and they did not have sunscreen back then, so now that he is older, he has a lot of spots that he needs to watch.

He had one spot on his scalp that had begun itching. The dermatologist tested it and found it to be precancerous, so he froze it off.

My dad has also had several spots frozen off of his arms. I'm just glad that he had the sense to see a doctor about them. Many people don't go at all or wait until the growths have become malignant.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 20, 2013

Has anyone ever heard of something called benign seizures? It sounds to me like any seizure would be harmful in some way. Can anyone tell me what they are?

By shell4life — On Jan 19, 2013

I have fair skin, so I get a lot of freckles and moles. Every day that I spend in the sun, even when I'm wearing sunscreen and reapplying it religiously, I develop new spots.

I have my doctor take a look at them during my yearly exam. So far, she has told me that all of them are benign.

Still, I will continue to point them out to her every time I go. I know how important it is to catch these things early.

By latte31 — On Dec 29, 2010

Oasis11-That is so true. Really anything with the word benign indicates an absence of cancer or really nothing to worry about.

A benign kidney, for example is a healthy kidney that has not succumbed to cancer. A benign pathology is used to diagnose a condition that is harmless.

These may be conditions that while pose some discomfort they are not life threatening. For example, a removal of a skin tag is not life threatening, but the removal might improve how one feels about one’s self.

By oasis11 — On Dec 26, 2010

Mog4419-I think what the writer means is that benign tissue like a skin tag is often removed for cosmetic reasons, but the dermatologists continues to observe the patient every six months or so to make sure that all of these abnormal growths are evaluated.

Most of these skin tags are benign tissue, but a small percentage is not. Just like most women that feel a lump in their breasts should go to the doctor immediately to have it evaluated.

Most of the lumps are benign lumps but about 10% are malignant which means that the presence of cancer is there and treatment is necessary.

Breast cancer has about a 93% survival rate if found in its early stages. This is why it is important to have mammograms yearly beginning at age 40.

By Mog4419 — On Sep 01, 2010

Re the difference between benign and precancerous and malignant, you said a precancerous grown might respond to surgery, but the doctor still might want to observe it.

Does this mean that the physician should observe/test a tumour before removal and that intervention without knowing the precise form of the tumour could actually cause the tumour to become malignant?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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