FAQ - Neoplasia and Cancer Explained

What is neoplasia?

When we talk about lumps, growths or tumours we are usually talking about neoplasia. A neoplasm is a bunch of cells with uncontrolled growth that form a lump or tumour. This may be due to a mutation or a lack of programmed cell death (apoptosis).

A neoplastic mass is also called a tumour and it may be

What is a benign tumour?

Benign tumours grow locally and do not tend to spread to other parts of the body. If they are surgically removed, they usually do not grow back unless some cells have invaded surrounding tissues or are left behind.

Benign tumours are rarely life threatening although they can cause serious problems because of their physical size or position.

Benign neoplasia tends to be named in a similar fashion to cancer but with a simple ‘-oma’ as the ending.

Examples include:

  • Adenoma – a benign tumour of glandular tissue
  • Fibroma – a benign tumour of fibrous connective tissue
  • Lipoma – a benign fat tumour

What is cancer?

Cancer is the common name given to all the various forms of malignant neoplasia. A tumour is a mass of cells that are growing out of control. There are two main types of tumours:


As a general rule, malignant tumours (cancers) are more life threatening than benign tumours because of the risk of spread throughout the body.

Why is malignant neoplasia called cancer?

Malignant tumours are the most aggressive types of neoplasia as they tend to grow by invading into the surrounding tissues. This may cause direct effects such as pain, inflammation or ulceration, depending on which part of the body is involved. They also have the ability to spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

This ability to spread and produce secondary tumours makes them potentially life threatening.

Secondary tumours can occur anywhere in the body with the most common sites being the lymph glands and the lungs, although they can also occur in the liver, kidney, brain and bones.

How are cancers named?

Most malignant tumours are named for the cell type, tissue or body organ from where they start.

Malignant tumours tends to be named by the site or location or organ affected, and the name ends with either the word –‘sarcoma’ or ‘-carcinoma’.

Examples include:

  • Bone cancer starts in a bone and is called osteosarcoma
  • Liver cancer starts in the liver and may be called hepatic carcinoma or adenocarcinoma depending on the cell type
  • Lymphosarcoma is sometimes called lymphoma even though it is a malignant neoplasia that starts in the lymphatic system
  • Fibrosarcoma is a malignant tumour of the fibrous connective tissue
  • Liposarcoma is a malignant tumour of the fat tissue
  • Melanoma is usually malignant and, even though its name suggests it is benign, is more appropriately called Malignant Melanoma.