What is the Difference Between Benign and Malignant?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Benign and malignant are two medical terms used to describe abnormal growths in the body. Benign growths are localized tumors that lack the aggressive traits of cancerous tumors, although they are not quite as harmless as “benign” might suggest. Malignant tumors are dangerous growths that are classified as cancerous. Understanding the difference between benign and malignant is important for patients receiving results of biopsies and other medical procedures.

Several characteristics can be observed in a malignant growth. The tumor generally grows extremely rapidly. It will quickly invade surrounding tissues, which makes it difficult to remove because cancerous cells may be left behind by a surgeon who fails to find the margins of the growth. Finally, a malignant growth can spread to other areas of the body in a process known as metastasization, via the lympathic system.

Benign growths are localized. They do not invade surrounding tissues and they cannot metastasize. They are usually treatable with surgery and while they can grow quite large, their growth is ultimately limited. However, this does not mean that benign growths are not dangerous. They can grow large enough to put pressure on organs or to create obstructions. Benign growths are also capable of turning malignant.


Approaches to treatment for benign and malignant growths vary, depending on where the growths are located and what kinds of growths they are. For both benign and malignant growths, surgery to remove the growth is one option. In benign growths, surgical treatment may suffice, with some monitoring in the future for signs of cell changes. Malignant growths may also need to be treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and other means.

In the lab, a technician can determine the difference between benign and malignant growths by looking under the microscope. The technician determines what kinds of cells are involved and documents this and other useful information in a report reviewed by the patient's doctor. Laboratory testing is an important step in addressing an abnormal growth because it determines the course of treatment.

Benign and malignant growths can occur in people of all ages. Sometimes they develop in response to genetic variations or environmental factors. In other cases, they appear to occur spontaneously, with no clear cause for some types of growths. Being alert to physical changes is important for both patients and doctors, in order to allow them to identify growths as early as possible. Delaying treatment can have dangerous consequences for some kinds of benign growths and most malignant growths.


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