Neoplasm vs. Tumor: Definitions & Differences

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

'Tumor' and 'neoplasm'. They sound similar and they are. Or are they? That depends. This lesson explains the differences and similarities between the two words.

Different & Similar Meanings

What's the difference between an apartment and a condo? Depending on how you look at things your answer could be: 'nothing'. And, you'd be right. But if you were to look at the question from a slightly different angle, you could say quite simply that an apartment is rented out and a condo is bought. You'd be right again!

So there is a similar dilemma between a tumor and a neoplasm. Depending on how you look at it, these two terms could mean the same thing or they may not. This lesson explains.

What Is A Tumor?

First, let's begin by defining tumor. Way back when, the word tumor technically referred to any swelling or abnormal enlargement in or on the human body. That's because 'tumor' means a swelling or swollen state in Latin. Tumor, or swelling, is also one of the cardinal signs of inflammation alongside rubor (redness), dolor (pain), calor (heat), and fanctio laesa (loss of function).

Thus, 'tumor' can classically refer to any swellings or swollen states of the human body (this list is by no means complete):

  • The swelling associated with inflammation. For example, when your knee swells up after you injure it playing basketball or another sport.
  • An abscess, an accumulation of pus as a result of an infection.
  • A cyst, an enclosed sac-like structure filled with a liquid or semisolid substance.
  • A lump or bump associated with cancer.

Again, those were all example of tumors in the proper Latin sense of things. You would be correct in calling all of those examples tumors but most people today think of tumors in a different light.

What Is A Neoplasm?

Nowadays, the word 'tumor' is more frequently associated with a neoplasm. A neoplasm is some sort of abnormal new growth of tissue, a lump or bump, that can be benign or malignant. Neoplasm comes to us from 'neo-', which means 'new' and '-plasm', which means 'cell' or 'tissue substance'.

Again, a neoplasm can be:

  • Malignant - in other words cancerous. The tumor invades the surrounding tissues and/or spreads around the body in a process called metastasis.
  • Benign - not cancerous. The tumor doesn't spread around the body nor does it invade the surrounding tissues. However, a benign tumor can damage the body in plenty of ways, such as by obstructing an organ or crushing it. In other words, a benign tumor isn't necessarily harmless. There is no such thing as 'benign cancer' since 'benign' and 'cancer' are referring to completely different things.

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