Tumors may be benign or malignant. Benign tumors remain localized as a discrete mass. They may differ appreciably from normal tissue in structure and excessive growth of cells, but are rarely fatal. However, even benign tumors may grow large enough to interfere with normal function. Some benign uterine tumors, which can weigh as much as 50 lb (22.7 kg), displace adjacent organs, causing digestive and reproductive disorders. Benign tumors are usually treated by complete surgical removal. Cells of malignant tumors, i.e., cancers, have characteristics that differ from normal cells in other ways beside cell proliferation. For example, they may be deficient in some specialized functions of the tissues where they originate. Malignant cells are invasive, i.e., they infiltrate surrounding normal tissue; later, malignant cells metastasize, i.e., spread via blood and the lymph system to other sites.
Both benign and malignant tumors are classified according to the type of tissue in which they are found. For example, fibromas are neoplasms of fibrous connective tissue, and melanomas are abnormal growths of pigment (melanin) cells. Malignant tumors originating from epithelial tissue, e.g., in skin, bronchi, and stomach, are termed carcinomas. Malignancies of epithelial glandular tissue such as are found in the breast, prostate, and colon, are known as adenocarcinomas. Malignant growths of connective tissue, e.g., muscle, cartilage, lymph tissue, and bone, are called sarcomas. Lymphomas and leukemias are malignancies arising among the white blood cells. A system has been devised to classify malignant tissue according to the degree of malignancy, from grade 1, barely malignant, to grade 4, highly malignant. In practice it is not always possible to determine the degree of malignancy, and it may be difficult even to determine whether particular tumor tissue is benign or malignant.
Neoplasia (new growth in Greek) is the abnormal proliferation of cells, resulting in a structure known as a neoplasm. The growth of this clone of cells exceeds, and is uncoordinated with, that of the normal tissues around it. It usually causes a lump or tumor. Neoplasms may be benign, pre-malignant or malignant.
In modern medicine, the term tumor is synonymous with a neoplasm that has formed a lump. In the past, the term tumor was used differently. Some neoplasms do not cause a lump.
This definition is criticized because some neoplasms, such as nevi, are not progressive.
Sometimes, the neoplastic cells all carry the same genetic or epigenetic anomaly which becomes evidence for clonality. For lymphoid neoplasms, e.g. lymphoma and leukemia, clonality is proven by the amplification of a single rearrangement of their immunoglobulin gene (for B cell lesions) or T-cell receptor gene (for T cell lesions). The demonstration of clonality is now considered to be necessary to identify a lymphoid cell proliferation as neoplastic.
It is tempting to define neoplasms as clonal cellular proliferations but the demonstration of clonality is not always possible. Therefore, clonality is not required in the definition of neoplasia.