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Tumours: Everything you need to know

What are tumours?

Tumours are a group of abnormal cells that grow to form lumps or growths. Depending on their type, different tumours grow and behave differently. The different types of tumours are:

Benign tumours 

These tumours are non-cancerous. They are rarely life threatening or lead to serious issues, unless they grow in a vital organ or grow large enough to press on and disrupt nearby tissues. Benign tumours grow slowly and do not spread to other parts of the body. Once removed through surgery, these tumours rarely grow back. Except for rare cases, benign tumours are non-cancerous.

Precancerous conditions 

Precancerous or premalignant cells are those abnormal cells that have the potential to develop into cancer. As these cells grow and divide, they become more and more abnormal, till they turn into cancer. Precancerous changes may vary in their type of abnormality:

  • Hyperplasia – This refers to an abnormal increase in the number of cells. While some hyperplasias are precancerous, most are not.
  • Atypia (atypical) – These cells look slightly abnormal under the microscope, and are usually a result of changes caused by healing and inflammation rather than precancerous change. They go back to normal once inflammation reduces or healing is complete.
  • Metaplasia – Though these cells look normal, they are not the usual type of cells found in that tissue or area of the body.
  • Dysplasia – These cells develop abnormally, and are abnormal in appearance and organization. These cells are almost always precancerous.

Malignant tumours – These tumours are cancerous. Cancer cells may develop from one abnormal cell in the tissue; they have a larger nucleus, and look, behave, grow differently from the normal tissue cells. Malignant tumours grow in an uncontrolled fashion and may invade surrounding tissues, blood vessels or lymphatic system, in which case they can become life threatening. Cancer that spreads to a new part of the body from its original location is called metastatic cancer.

Naming of tumours: Tumours are commonly named after their place of origin. For example, breast cancer or lung cancer. Cancer of plasma cells is referred to multiple myeloma, of lymph nodes as lymphoma and of white blood cells as leukaemia. Some cancers are also named after the person who described them, like the Hodgkin lymphoma.

What are the causes of the disorder?

In normal conditions, cell growth and division is strictly controlled. New cells are created to replace the old ones. A tumour develops when a cell starts dividing abnormally and growing excessively due to excessive growth receptors on the cell surface because of the mutations in DNA.  Common causes that disrupt the cell balance and lead to tumours are:

  1. Tobacco (oral cancer)
  2. Excess alcohol
  3. Excessive sunlight exposure (melanoma)
  4. Genetics
  5. Radiation
  6. Viruses (cervical cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma)
  7. Chemicals and Toxins

Some tumours affect one gender more than the other, while some are more common in children or elderly. Others may be related to environment, family history or diet.

What one needs to know about symptoms or signs?

Symptoms depend on the type and location of the tumour (shortness of breath, coughing in lung cancer), while some tumours (like pancreatic cancer) may not cause any symptoms till the condition reaches advanced stages.

Which specialist should be consulted in case of signs and symptoms?

People who experience symptoms of a tumour or feel a general sense of illness over long periods must consult their family physician, who will refer them to an oncologist, a doctor who specialises in treating cancer.

What are the screening tests and investigations done to confirm or rule out the disorder?

Some tumours like those of the skin are easily visible, but most cannot b seen during a physical exam, as they are deep inside the body. The doctor may suggest the following tests for confirming diagnosis, depending on the area of concern:

  1. Biopsy – A piece of tissue is removed and examined under the microscope for determining a tumour and its status (benign or malignant).
  2.  x-ray and other radiological tests
  3. Enzymes and Function tests
  4. Tumor markers
  5. Imaging tests – A CT or MRI scan can help determine the exact location of tumour and its extent of spread. Positron emission tomography (PET) is also used for certain tumour types.

What treatment modalities are available for management of the disorder?

Treatment depends on the type of tumour, its state (benign or malignant), and location. Benign tumours are easy to treat  – some are removed because of their location and their effect on surrounding, normal tissue. A malignant tumour is treated through the following:

  1. Chemotherapy
  2. Radiation
  3. Surgery (for cancers in one location, or cancers spread to nearby lymph nodes)
  4. Combination of the above methods

What are the known complications in management of the disorder?

A tumour may affect the functioning of the organ it is present in. Metastasis or spread of a tumour to other body parts also makes the treatment difficult.

How can the disorder be prevented from happening or recurring?

The risk of malignant tumours can be reduced by:

  1. Practising a healthy diet
  2. Including exercise in daily routine; maintaining healthy weight
  3. Limiting consumption of alcohol
  4. Limiting exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals
  5. Avoiding smoking or tobacco
  6. Reducing exposure to sun




“Benign tumours,” WebMD.boots.com, http://www.webmd.boots.com/cancer/benign-tumours

“Tumour,” MedlinePlus, NLM, NIH, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001310.htm

“Types of tumours,” Cancer.ca, Canadian Cancer Society, http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-101/what-is-cancer/types-of-tumours/?region=on

“What are tumours?” Johns Hopkins University, http://pathology.jhu.edu/pc/BasicTypes1.php

Image courtesy of [dream designs] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net



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