Neoplasm Types and Factors That Cause Them

A neoplasm is an abnormal growth of cells in the body. It can be a small, harmless growth such as a mole. It can also be a cancerous or precancerous tumor.

Most of the time, neoplasms are not dangerous to your health. They sometimes can be, however. If you have a neoplasm, it is important to show it to your healthcare provider.

This article looks at some of the different types of neoplasms and how they are treated. It also discusses the possible outcomes for malignant neoplasms.

Close up of a mole
 greg801 / Getty Images

Recognizing a Neoplasm

A visible neoplasm may look exactly like your skin, or it may be a different color or texture. Neoplasms are usually painless, but they can sometimes hurt or bleed. This is one of the things that makes them different from warts.

Neoplasms usually grow very slowly. It is rare for them to grow rapidly.

You may notice small neoplasms on the surface of your skin. They may appear in reachable areas of your body, such as your ear canals or your nostrils. Neoplasms can also grow inside your body, where you can't see them.

In some instances, internal neoplasms may cause noticeable bumps. Usually, though, they are located deep beneath the surface of your skin and can't be seen from the outside.

Types of Neoplasms

There are trillions of normal, healthy cells inside the human body. These cells grow, divide, multiply, and die. When they die, they are replaced in a controlled, paced manner. In the case of a neoplasm, however, the cells may grow more rapidly or survive for longer than they are supposed to.

Neoplasms can be benign growths, cancer, or precancerous tumors:

  • A benign neoplasm is a growth that does not have cellular features of cancer or precancer. These neoplasms are highly unlikely to become dangerous.
  • A precancerous tumor has features of a malignant tumor. It has not yet become cancer, however, and has not spread.
  • Cancer is a neoplasm that can grow rapidly, spread, and cause damage to the body. A malignant neoplasm is cancerous. A metastatic neoplasm is a malignant cancer that has spread to nearby or distant areas of the body.

Benign Neoplasms

Benign neoplasms may develop during late childhood or in adulthood. Benign tumors usually grow slowly, if at all. They are not generally life-threatening.

Benign neoplasms are caused by a limited overgrowth of cells, usually without a known cause. Examples include:

The fact that benign tumors are not cancer doesn't mean they can't cause problems. Fibroids, for example, can cause significant bleeding and pain and may need to be removed.

Malignant Tumors and Other Malignant Neoplasms

A metastatic neoplasm is a cancerous growth. It is most often associated with damage to a cell's DNA. This damage results in genetic mutations that cause abnormal cells to lose their normal function. These cells multiply faster, live longer, and invade other cells and tissue.

Certain factors can trigger these mutations, including:

  • Genetics
  • Sun exposure
  • Toxic substances

Smoking, for example, can increase a person's risk of lung cancer. Excessive alcohol use may lead to liver cancer.

A malignant neoplasm can grow in any part of the body and can also metastasize (spread) to virtually any part of the body.

Some common types of malignant neoplasms include:

  • Malignant neoplasm of breast/breast cancer: A malignant neoplasm may begin as a physical mass, such as a tumor in the breast.
  • Leukemia: A neoplasm can also begin as an overproduction of a cell type. This is what happens in leukemia, a form of cancer characterized by overproduction of blood cells.
  • Malignant lymph node neoplasm/lymphoma: Lymphomas occur when there is an overproduction of white blood cells called lymphocytes. These cancers affect the lymphatic system, which includes the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, and thymus gland
  • Malignant neoplasm of the bone: These tumors form when bone cells divide out of control. Osteosarcoma and Ewing's sarcoma are types of bone tumors typically found in people younger than 30. Malignant bone tumors called chondrosarcoma are more common in older people.
  • Skin tumors: Skin tumors are caused by the rapid growth of skin cells. Squamous cell carcinomas begin in the top layer of skin called the epidermis. Basal cell carcinomas begin in the cells in the lower part of the epidermis. Melanomas, the most serious type of skin cancer, begin in pigment-producing cells called melanocytes.
  • Plasma cell neoplasms/myelomas: Myelomas occur when abnormal blood plasma cells build up in the bones or soft tissues. 

Precancerous Neoplasms

Precancerous neoplasms are growths that have not spread but have the potential to become cancer. They are usually diagnosed after a microscopic examination of the neoplasm.

Detecting and Classifying Neoplasms

When you have a neoplasm, it is important to have it evaluated by a healthcare provider. There are a number of tests that can be done to determine if it is benign or malignant.

Benign vs Malignant Neoplasm

A neoplasm is considered benign if it cannot spread through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to invade other parts of the body.

It can be difficult for you to know if a neoplasm is benign or not. Often, your healthcare provider can tell based on the appearance, texture, and history of the growth. The diagnosis can be confirmed with lab and imaging tests.

Neoplasms aren't always cancerous. There are many types of benign neoplasms, including moles, skin tags, and cysts. It is always best to have any new growth evaluated by a healthcare provider. Doing so can help give you peace of mind.

How Are Malignant Neoplasms Detected?

Your healthcare provider will probably order several tests to help determine if you have a malignant neoplasm. These may include:

  • Lab work: Blood tests can look for substances in your blood that might suggest cancer. They can also determine if there is an overgrowth of blood cells. Blood tests can also provide clues about your overall health and how well your organs are functioning. 
  • Imaging tests: Imaging tests like computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to find neoplasms inside your body. These tests can also determine whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body. 
  • Biopsy: Your healthcare provider may want to do a biopsy to determine whether a neoplasm is malignant. During a biopsy, a small tissue sample is removed. The sample is examined under a microscope for signs of malignancy.

Pathology: Examining Tissue for Signs of Cancer

The microscopic appearance of a benign neoplasm is very different from the appearance of a cancerous or precancerous growth:

  • A benign neoplasm usually has cells that appear normal with regular spacing between them.
  • A cancerous or precancerous neoplasm usually has cells that appear abnormal in size, shape, or color. There is often crowded and irregular spacing between the cells, and possible invasion into nearby tiny blood vessels called capillaries.

Treatment for Malignant Neoplasms

Treatment for malignant neoplasms depends on a number of factors, such as the type of tumor, where it is located, and if it has spread to other parts of the body.

Surgery

Surgery tends to work best for solid tumors that haven't spread. A solid tumor is a mass such as a breast tumor. In the early stages of cancer, surgery may be the only necessary treatment.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy involves the use of one or more anti-cancer drugs. It targets fast-growing cancer cells and works throughout your body rather than in a specific area. It is often used to keep cancer from spreading, or to treat cancer that has already spread. It can also help shrink a tumor prior to surgery, which can make the cancer easier to remove. 

Radiation

Radiation therapy targets the tumor directly. During this treatment, high doses of radiation are used to destroy the cancer cells. The goal of this treatment is to cure early stage tumors or reduce their size.

Ablation

Ablation is a minimally invasive treatment for solid tumors. During this procedure, a healthcare provider uses a tiny probe to freeze or burn the cancer cells. Ablation tends to work best for smaller tumors.

Embolization

During this minimally invasive procedure, a small tube is inserted inside the primary blood vessel that supplies blood to the tumor. The goal of embolization is to disrupt the supply of blood so the tumor dies. This can be done with small particles or beads that block the blood supply. Chemotherapy drugs or radioactive particles can also be delivered through the tube. 

Hormonal Therapy

Some cancers like breast cancer and prostate cancer rely on hormones to grow. Hormone therapy can prevent the body from producing hormones or interfere with the behavior of hormones. This can help reduce the size of a tumor or help prevent it from coming back after surgery or other treatments. 

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that helps stimulate your body's immune system to fight cancer. This can be done in a few different ways. Some examples include:

  • Immunotherapy drugs: Certain drugs can boost your immune system and help it learn how to fight cancer cells.
  • Man-made antibodies: These disease-fighting proteins can be targeted to fight specific parts of a cancer cell.
  • Cancer vaccines: Like other types of vaccines, cancer vaccines create an immune response so your body will fight cancer like it fights other diseases.
  • Oncolytic viruses: These are modified viruses that are designed to infect and destroy cancer cells.

Outlook with Malignant Neoplasm

The outlook for people with malignant neoplasm depends on the type of cancer and whether or not it has spread. Cancers caught in the early stages tend to have a much better prognosis than those caught in the later stages. 

For example, people who have melanomas that have not spread have a 5-year survival rate of 99%. This means that 99% of these patients will still be alive 5 years after diagnosis. 

People who have melanomas that have spread to distant parts of the body, however, have a 5 year survival rate of only 30%.

This is why it is important to see a healthcare provider right away if you find a lump or growth anywhere on your body.

Summary

A neoplasm is an abnormal growth on the body. Neoplasms can be benign or malignant. 

Neoplasms can be diagnosed with lab tests, imaging tests, and biopsy. These tests can determine if a neoplasm is benign or malignant.

Treatment for malignant neoplasms depends on where they are located and if they have spread. Typical treatments include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. In some cases, hormonal therapy or immunotherapy can also help.

A Word From Verywell

The term neoplasm is not synonymous with cancer. If you or your healthcare provider find one, there's a good chance it will be harmless. Even if it's not, many malignancies today are very treatable.

Be aware of potential symptoms of internal cancers, like swollen lymph nodes, pain, fatigue, and poor appetite. If you have any of these symptoms or you find an unusual growth on your body, contact your primary care provider as soon as possible.

Depending on where the growth is, you may need a physical exam, blood tests, imaging tests, or a tissue biopsy. If the growth looks suspicious, you'll at least have the opportunity to get it diagnosed and treated early when success rates are highest.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the difference between neoplasm and cancer?

    Cancer is a type of neoplasm. Not all neoplasms are cancerous. A malignant or cancerous neoplasm is a growth that has the potential to grow rapidly and spread throughout the body. Benign neoplasms may be painful but they are almost never life-threatening.

  • Does malignant mean deadly?

    Not necessarily. The word "malignant" describes a growth that has the potential to spread and is likely to become deadly without treatment. Many malignancies are treatable, however. A malignancy that is caught early and treated may never become deadly. 

  • What is an example of malignant neoplasm?

    Malignant neoplasms are cancerous growths. They can form almost anywhere in the body, including soft tissue, bone, skin, or blood. Some examples include leukemia (blood cancer), osteosarcoma (bone cancer), and melanoma (skin cancer). 

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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