What Are the Differences Between a Cyst and Tumor?

A biopsy may be conducted to determine whether a tumor or cyst is cancerous.
Women who perform regular self-exams on their breasts will be able to detect lumps that may be either a cyst or tumor.
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  • Written By: Alicia Sparks
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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A cyst and tumor actually have more similarities than differences, which is probably why many people become confused, and sometimes unnecessarily worried, about the implications of having either one. Both can form anywhere in the body, and they can be either benign or cancerous. These two structures have physical differences, however, and a tumor is more likely than a cyst to be cancerous.

Both of these growths are abnormal formations that can appear on nearly any part of the body. This includes the fleshy parts like skin, organs, and other tissues, as well as the hard parts like bones. Generally, though, a cyst is a sac filled with fluid, whereas a tumor is a tissue mass.

For many, “cancer” is the first word that comes to mind when they are told they have a tumor or a cyst. People often think that any mass must be cancerous, but this is not the case.

A cyst is almost always benign, which means it is not cancerous. Tumors, on the other hand, do turn out to be malignant or cancerous more often than cysts do. This does not mean all cysts are benign and all tumors are cancerous. Cysts are capable of turning cancerous or of indicating the presence of cancer, and tumors can be benign. Generally, a medical professional must perform a biopsy to determine whether a tumor or cyst is benign or cancerous.

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Overall, there are no differences between a cyst and tumor when it comes to locating one or the other. Sometimes, they are easy to find, and other times, it is impossible without the help of a medical professional. For example, women who regularly perform self-exams on their breasts are familiar with how their breasts normally feel and can pinpoint abnormal lumps that could turn out to be cysts or tumors. On the other hand, self-exams do not work to locate every kind of growth, and one could quietly form on a woman’s uterus or a man’s lung without their knowledge. Therefore, everyone should have regular medical checkups and talk to a medical professional whenever an abnormal lump or bulge or unexplainable pain develops.

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cheekys00
Post 8

My Rott, in the span of three days, has a soft growth right by his collar under his right ear. It's about the size of a golf ball cut in half. How can something grow that fast? Is that a tumor way, or do cysts come that fast? I'm a nervous wreck.

anon309711
Post 7

My 17 year old daughter was diagnosed with a colloid cyst in her brain measuring 1.5 cm located in the third ventricle of the Foroman of Monroe. She had a CT scan done. The doc informed us that this is not causing any harm because she is not dizzy, fainting, and has no weakness in her legs, etc. She only has headaches which he does not think are caused by the cyst.

I am extremely scared. Is there anything to worry about? We are due to take another MRI in March 2013. She is in the 12th grade next year and we are extremely worried about her. Please, if anyone can help me with answers and even sufferers from this disease, I would appreciate any advice and tips. Thank you so much for allowing me to share my story. --Sandy N.

bagley79
Post 6

Cancer is always the first thing that goes through my mind if I see or feel something like this on my body.

As far as my mammograms go, I know that I have a lot of cysts in my breasts, and I usually have to have more than one image taken.

I don't freak out about this like I used to because I usually always get called back for a second time just to be sure.

I have had a breast biopsy done for one big cyst they found, and thankfully it was benign. I know I would much rather hear the word "cyst" than the word "tumor".

Even though many tumors are benign, it seems like many times they are cancerous, and that is always bad news.

myharley
Post 5

I had this bump that appeared on my neck and it kept getting a little bit bigger. When my husband noticed it and asked what it was, I knew it was time to get it checked out.

I was worried that it was a tumor and was almost afraid of having it checked out. It ended up being a cyst that was filled with fluid.

I was told I could have it completely removed, or have it drained. I opted to have it drained and they sent the fluid in to make sure it was benign.

They told me there was a good chance it would fill up with fluid again and need to be drained again. The only way to totally get rid of it was to have it surgically removed.

I was not excited about that, but I can tell it is gradually starting to fill up again and I will need to have it taken care of again.

At least this time I know it is a cyst and that it is not cancer. The next time I notice something unusual like this I won't wait so long to have it checked out.

John57
Post 4

@simrin - Many times a doctor will have a general idea if a cyst or tumor is serious or not just by feeling it. I think this is the case whether they are in humans or animals.

When I found some lumps on my dog, I immediately took her to the vet. He could tell by how they felt and that they were not tender to the touch what they were.

He said they were benign cysts that were from age and she would probably develop more of them as she continued to get older.

It was such a relief to know they were not serious. When you feel something abnormal like that your first instinct is that something is seriously wrong.

burcidi
Post 3

@simrin-- That's right, a mammogram will not show for sure if it's a cyst or a tumor because a mammogram doesn't differentiate between liquid and solid. However, physicians are generally familiar with the differences in appearance of the two in mammograms. For example, cysts tend to show smooth edges in mammograms while tumors show irregular edges in different shapes.

But the best way to differentiate between the two is through the use of an ultrasound. A needle could also be used to look for fluid which would show that it's a cyst.

As far as physical symptoms go, I believe pain is usually seen with cysts and not tumors. Tenderness is usually associated with benign cysts. Lack of pain or lack of tenderness might point to a tumor. But I don't think these rules are etched in stone, so it's not good to generalize.

SteamLouis
Post 2

I have two questions about this. From what I understand, the mammogram doesn't always help physicians differentiate between a cyst and tumor. I've reached this conclusion because this was what my sister was told after her mammogram. They said that they've found an abnormal formation in one of the breasts but don't know at this point if it's a cyst or a tumor.

So how will they find out? Will they need to do a biopsy to see if it's fluid filled or solid?

The other question I have is, are there any differences in the symptoms of a cyst and tumor? Do they feel different? Does one cause pain while the other doesn't, etc?

turquoise
Post 1

This is such a relief! Thank you so much for this information.

I was just informed over the phone that the results of my mammogram have returned and they've found a cyst in my left breast. They asked me to make an appointment as soon as possible for a biopsy.

I have not spoken to my doctor yet and have been jumping to conclusions about what's going on. I thought that a cyst and tumor are the same thing and both are a sign of cancer. I am so relieved to know that most cysts are benign. I hope that this will be the case for me as well.

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