What is it?
A tumor is basically an abnormal mass of tissue that occurs as a result of unregulated cell growth, which may be benign or malignant. There are many different types, and each type has its own method of diagnosis and treatment.
Grading and staging
For any tumor in the body there is a grading system. This is done to help doctors decide how the tumor should be treated, if at all. It takes into account the differentiation. The degree of differentiation refers to how similar the tumor cell is compared to the normal tissue cell. It is graded from 1 to 4, with 1 being well differentiated and 4 being poorly differentiated. Grade 4 generally refers to the most aggressive types of tumors.
A tumor can also be staged. Some types have their own grading system, but one of the most commonly used systems is the TNM.
The T refers to the extent of spread, with T1 being small and minimally invasive, and T4 being very large and/or invasive, having spread to adjacent organs. The N refers to involvement of lymph nodes, with N0 being none, and N3 involving distant lymph nodes. The M refers to the presence of distant metastases, so M0 would be none, and M1 would indicate that there has been distance spread.
Tumor markers can either be made by the tumor itself, or be made in response to the tumor by the body. Each tumor gives off, or results in the production of, a specific substance. When the blood levels of these substances are higher than normal, then that particular tumor can be suspected. Some tumor markers are more specific than others, and this is why they should be used in conjunction with other investigations to make an accurate diagnosis. Also, in early stages of a tumor these markers may not be raised. Similarly, tumor markers can be raised in somebody who does not have a tumor.
Benign and malignant tumors
Many people are under the mistaken impression that tumors are all cancerous or malignant. A benign tumor is an area of abnormal cell growth. With this the cells will proliferate but they will not spread to other areas. Sometimes they have to be removed if they are impacting in nerves or blood vessels, but usually they can stay in the body and not cause harm. In cases like these the doctor will wait and see if the tumor grows or causes damage.
A malignant tumor is a cancerous tumor. They tend to grow much faster than the benign varieties and often spread to other areas of the body. Not only can they impact on vessels and nerves but they can also invade other tissues causing them to function abnormally. These types require prompt treatment, and the types of treatment vary. If the tumor has not yet spread it can usually be removed, and if it has them radiation therapy or chemotherapy may help. Sometimes the tumor spreads to the extent that there is no treatment option.