Cyst vs. tumor: Conditions, differences, and diagnosis

In this article, learn about the differences between cysts and tumors. We explore the most common types and describe the conditions that cause them.

Cysts vs. tumors

A cyst is a sac of tissue that is filled with another substance, such as air or fluid. Tumors are solid masses of tissue.

Cysts can form anywhere on the body, including on the bones and soft tissues.

Most cysts are noncancerous, although there are some exceptions. Cysts can feel tender to the touch, and a person may be able to move one easily.

Tumors can also grow almost anywhere in the body. They tend to grow quickly and are usually firm to the touch.

It is possible to have cysts and tumors in the same organ.

Tumors may be either benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Benign tumors usually grow in one place and do not spread.

Malignant tumors develop in one area of the body, then spread to others. Both benign and malignant tumors vary in size.

Some tumor types include:

  • Adenomas: These are made of glandular epithelial tissue, which covers the organs and glands. Examples of these tumors include colon polyps, bile duct adenomas, and hepatic adenomas. They can be cancerous but are usually benign.
  • Fibroids: These benign tumors grow on the connective or fibrous tissues. They most commonly develop in, on, or around the uterus.
  • Lipomas: These fat cell tumors often form in people over 40. They are usually soft and located just under the skin. They are almost always benign.
  • Malignant tumors: These can develop anywhere in the body. Sarcomas, for example, develop from connective tissue such as bone marrow. Carcinomas, another common type of malignant tumor, grow from epithelial cells in the colon, liver, or prostate.

Tumors can grow so large that they push into organs, causing pain and other symptoms. A surgeon will usually remove large tumors.

All cancerous tumors are usually removed unless they are impossible to reach or located so close to a vital organ that surgical removal may cause harm.

A doctor can use several diagnostic methods to distinguish between a tumor and a cyst. They will start by taking a medical history, then ask when symptoms began and when they are most prominent.

The timing of symptoms is important. For example, cysts may become more noticeable around menstruation, due to hormonal fluctuations.

A doctor will also examine the cyst or tumor, if possible. They will consider its location, color, how it feels, and whether any material is draining from it.

A doctor may use an ultrasound to examine a cyst or tumor located deep within the body. Ultrasound imaging can often show whether a lump is hollow, fluid-filled, or a collection of cells.

In some cases, a doctor may request a biopsy, which involves removing the lump or cells from it. The biopsy will be sent to a laboratory for testing.

When to see a doctor

While not all cysts and tumors require treatment, a person should have a lump examined if it appears to be growing quickly.

Other potentially dangerous symptoms include:

  • bleeding from area
  • pain or tenderness
  • inhibited movement
  • an inability to perform daily activities due to the tumor or cyst


Tumors and cysts can be a cause for concern, although some are harmless. Cysts are often filled with air or with another type of cell, forming a fluid. Tumors are masses of one type of cell.

Anyone concerned by a lump or growth should see a doctor. They can perform tests, diagnose the lump, and determine whether a person needs treatment.

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