Bumps and lumps under the skin are pretty common, and are generally harmless, but they can be worrisome. Often the scariest question people ask themselves is whether or not that lump is a cancerous tumor.
More often than not, that lump is just a cyst. Most of us are pretty familiar with the term “cyst,” but many don’t really know what a cyst is. So what is the difference between a cyst and a tumor?
Skin cysts are sac-like growths that grow in the deeper layers of the skin. They come in many varieties, and can show up in many different places. Some may be familiar with the cysts that can form from acne. These are large, inflamed lumps that are painful. These are generally filled with pus.
But cysts on the skin typically aren’t painful. Other cyst types are filled with matter of more solid consistency. They can even be filled with air. When cysts form under the skin, making a lump, they are often called sebaceous cysts or epidermoid cysts. Epidermoid cysts are generally filled with fluid, and are 1-5 centimeters wide. They aren’t painful, unless there is an infection. Sebaceous cysts are less common, and contain oil while other cyst varieties do not. Pilar cysts are another type of cyst that can form on the skin’s surface. These often form on the scalp.
Ganglion cysts are also small, round and painless. They often form on the tendons or joints of wrists and hands.
And cysts don’t just form on near the surface of the skin. They can also form in the liver, kidneys, breast and ovaries. Cysts are generally harmless, even when they are found internally.
A tumor, on the other hand, is an abnormal mass of tissue or swelling, not a sac that contains liquid. Sometimes tumors cause no symptoms. Other times they can be associated with chills, fatigue, fever and other symptoms. Cancer generally has many other negative health effects besides a lump of tissue. Furthermore, cancerous tumors tend to grow, as cancer is the abnormal growth of cells.
Solid, cancerous tumors come in many different types, like sarcomas, carcinomas, and lymphomas. Certain types of eye cancer have solid tumors. Others form near the kidneys. Rhabdomyosarcoma is a soft tissue tumor than can arise almost anywhere on the body. Bone cancer and hepatoblastoma (a liver tumor) are other solid tumors. Not all cancers have solid tumors (blood cancer, for example).
Even if you are diagnosed with a tumor, it may be benign, meaning it is noncancerous. But benign tumors can still result in negative symptoms.
So What Should I Do?
Irregular growths should always send you to the doctor. Simple tests can quickly determine any risks there might be. The peace of mind knowing that you are not in danger is very important. Even if it isn’t cancerous, there are simple options for removal of epidermoid cysts (cysts just underneath the skin).
It is a bad idea to try to “pop” an epidermal, sebaceous or pilar cyst. Infection can spread if the cyst ruptures beneath the skin. The cyst’s sac may also be left behind, and could fill again. Cysts often go away over time. If it is uncomfortable or you don’t like it’s appearance, ask Dr. Myers about removal options.
If you have any questions at all, Dr. Myers recommends seeing a dermatologist. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t delay in getting a professional opinion.