Malignant vs. Benign

Both are medical terms that are often confused with the other

Dividing cancer cell
Dividing cancer cell. STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

The difference between malignant and benign is important to know if you have been diagnosed with a tumor. Malignant and benign are medical terms that are often confused with the other.

What is Cancer?

Cancer can start any place in the body. It starts when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should and causes problems in the part of the body where the cancer started.

Cancer cells can also spread to other parts of the body. For instance, cancer cells in the lung can travel to the bones and grow there. When cancer cells spread, it’s called metastasis. When lung cancer spreads to the bones, it’s still called lung cancer. To doctors, the cancer cells in the bones look just like the ones from the lung. It’s not called bone cancer unless it started in the bones.

Some cancers grow and spread fast. Others grow more slowly. They also respond to treatment in different ways. Some types of cancer are best treated with surgery; others respond better to drugs called chemotherapy. Often two or more treatments are used to get the best results.

When someone has cancer, the doctor will want to find out what kind of cancer it is. People with cancer need treatment that works for their type of cancer.

Malignant

Malignant is cancerous. Malignant tumors can invade and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.

Benign

Benign is not cancerous. Benign tumors may grow larger but do not spread to other parts of the body.

What Stage is the Cancer?

The doctor also needs to know if and how far the cancer has spread from where it started. This is called the cancer stage. You may have heard other people say that their cancer was stage 1 or stage 2.

Knowing the stage of the cancer helps the doctor decide what type of treatment is best.

For each type of cancer there are tests that can be done to figure out the stage of the cancer. As a rule, a lower stage (such as a stage 1 or 2) means that the cancer has not spread very much. A higher number (such as a stage 3 or 4) means it has spread more. Stage 4 is the highest stage.

Ask your doctor to explain the stage of your cancer and what it means for you.

References:

American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancerbasics/what-is-cancer

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