If you find a lump or bump somewhere on your body, you may wonder: Is this a cyst? Is it a tumor? What’s the difference? And what should I do?
“It’s quite common to find a lump or bump on your body. Most are unrelated to cancer. The first step, no matter what, is to not alarm yourself too much,” says Douglas Scott Micalizzi, MD, PhD. Dr. Micalizzi is an oncologist and clinical director of the Cancer Early Detection and Diagnostics Clinic at Mass General Cancer Center at Mass General Waltham. “Take a little time to ask yourself specific questions about what you’ve found. That will help you determine whether you need to seek medical attention.”
Dr. Micalizzi recommends that you seek prompt medical attention if you have other specific symptoms near a lump or bump. “If the area is painful, hot, red, or draining fluid, that is more concerning for an infection and you should call your doctor. But if it’s just a lump or a bump with no other symptoms, then it makes sense to watch the area for at least a couple of days or even a few weeks and see how it’s changing,” he explains.
“People tend to think about cysts as more on the benign (noncancerous) side of the spectrum, and they may assume that tumors are always cancer. However, a tumor can be either benign or cancerous, and so can a cyst,” Dr. Micalizzi says.
A cyst is a sac like a balloon that’s filled with fluid, air or another substance. Cysts can occur when something blocks a gland or other bodily drainage. That causes the substance to get backed up, and the body builds a sac around the substance. There are hundreds of types of cysts, with many different possible causes. For example, a cyst may form when a milk duct in the breast is blocked, a hair follicle is damaged, or a gland under the skin is blocked.
Cysts can appear anywhere on your body. Although they can be any size or shape, many are round, have smooth edges, and feel like they can roll around under your fingers.
“The majority of cysts are not related to cancer,” Dr. Micalizzi says. “A cyst is usually a benign condition. But they sometimes need to be drained or removed because they can cause symptoms.”
In contrast, tumors are typically more solid collections of tissue. They occur when cells grow uncontrollably when they shouldn’t, or when cells don’t die when they should.
Tumors can occur anywhere on or inside the body. There are three general types:
If you find a lump or bump, you can ask yourself several questions. The answers will help you assess the situation and may help a health care provider determine next steps.
If you have signs of infection or if the lump gets larger in a short period of time, seek medical attention. But if not, Dr. Micalizzi recommends that you monitor the lump for a few days, or through an entire menstrual cycle if the lump is in your breast to determine if it goes away. “If the lump persists, the first step would be to contact your primary care provider (PCP). They can help explore your concern and direct you on steps to get more information, such as a mammogram, imaging test, blood test, or biopsy.”
Finding a new lump or bump on your body can cause anxiety, but Dr. Micalizzi stresses that the vast majority of cysts and tumors are noncancerous. “I always encourage people to be self-aware of their bodies so that they recognize any changes that might indicate a health issue. Cancer is a rare diagnosis—it’s important not to jump to conclusions and assume that every lump or bump is cancer. But at the same time, don’t ignore things that are getting worse.”