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How to tell the difference between cysts, lumps and tumors

Dr. Judy Wolf is the chief medical officer at Vermillion, Inc. She received her medical degree from the Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Medicine, and her clinical and research interests are in gynecologic cancers — specifica...

When to talk to your doctor about your body's lumps and bumps

When I was a medical resident, I discovered a lump on my body that felt abnormal. I had tests run, but my doctor told me very little about the lump or its possible causes. For two weeks, I feared the worst while waiting for my results. Finally, my doctor attributed the lump to hormones and told me not to worry about it.

Not worry about it? Oh, sure. No problem.

In retrospect, I realize my situation was common among many women: discovering a lump and then hearing only vague answers from a physician, and being left feeling uncertain and scared.

By gaining a basic understanding of lumps and masses, though, you will be better prepared at your next appointment to ask the right questions and to get specific details about your health.

The lump difference

Many types of lumps can form throughout the body — and despite pervasive fears, not all link to cancer. The most common lumps that women develop include:


Cysts are sacs filled with fluid, air or other materials, often making them somewhat soft to the touch. They can form anywhere in the body — including bones, organs and soft tissue — and can be caused by infections, excessive production from sebaceous glands, chronic inflammatory conditions, hormones, obstructions to the flow of fluids or foreign bodies. Some cysts are discovered during physical examinations, while others require ultrasound imaging for diagnosis.

Cysts are most commonly benign (i.e., noncancerous) but can be indicators of more serious problems elsewhere and can pose health risks if ruptured. Therefore, many physicians remove cysts and have pathologists examine them.


Tumors, commonly referred to as neoplasms, are abnormal tissue masses that can grow on nearly any body part. Though tumor tissue usually grows faster than normal tissue, not all tumors are harmful. Benign tumors aren’t dangerous unless they interfere with normal bodily functions.

However, malignant (i.e., cancerous) tumors can pose serious health risks by invading surrounding tissues or spawning additional tumors. That’s why most physicians recommend biopsies to determine the tumor’s nature or grade.


Uterine fibroids, also known as leiomyomas or myomas, are common benign growths women develop during childbearing years. Fibroids vary in shape, size and location, but they’re commonly firm, rubbery masses distinct from their surroundings. An estimated 75 percent of women develop fibroids, though many go unnoticed.

A small percentage of women can experience chronic symptoms from fibroids — such as heavy menstrual bleeding and pelvic pain — and may need them surgically removed or treated through hormone therapy.


Polyps are abnormal growths on any tissue with a blood supply. Most polyps are benign, but they can grow to be malignant. Women who develop polyps within their uterine linings or cervixes may experience heavy menstrual bleeding, cramping and abdominal pain. Doctors usually elect to remove polyps for further testing.

What to Ask Your Doctor About Your Lump

Educating yourself about lumps is only the first step; the next is making a doctor’s appointment for a proper examination and diagnosis.

Instead of going to your consultation afraid, prepare a list of questions to help you better understand your situation, such as:

  • What type of growth do you believe this to be?
  • What is the likelihood that my lump is benign? Malignant? Precancerous?
  • Can you explain the tests that will be performed?
  • What treatment plan do you recommend? Why?
  • What are the possible side effects of my treatment options?
  • Could this condition affect my ability to have children?
  • How likely is this to be a recurring health problem?
  • Does this lump increase my risk for cancer?

Finding a lump can be unsettling, but empowering yourself with information can help you eliminate fear and turn your next consultation into a productive discussion about how to get your health back on track.

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