Before You Worry About a Lump, Empower Yourself

July 7, 2016

Finding a lump on your body can be scary, and waiting for a doctor’s appointment or results from a scan or biopsy can wreak havoc on even the most resilient woman’s mental state. Stories of tumors and surgeries can swirl in your head, affecting your personal and professional life.

Knowing what’s going on with your body and understanding some of the medical jargon your doctor uses in the exam room is key to staying present and keeping the right frame of mind. Not all lumps are cancerous, and many are completely harmless. Educate yourself before, during, and after each doctor’s visit so you’ll know the difference and proactively seek care.

My Own Experience

I found a lump on my body when I was a resident — a lump that didn’t feel quite right. After some tests at my doctor’s office and very little explanation, I was told I’d hear back about my results in a few weeks.

As a resident, I’d seen all kinds of outcomes for a lump like this. I was immediately concerned and assumed I had cancer. I lost sleep for the next two weeks before my test results revealed that hormones were to blame for the lump, not cancer.

While I was relieved, I found myself wishing I had more information available to me. I should have been told that a lot of things can cause lumps in my body, especially as a premenopausal woman.

Removing Fear From the Situation

Cysts, lumps, and tumors can appear in our bodies due to fibrocystic breasts, hormones, genetics, and other factors, and it’s not uncommon to find lumps around menstruation. Knowing the difference between a cyst and a tumor is key to keeping your emotions in check.

Cysts and tumors are remarkably similar to each other, which could be why the fear factor is so high. Both can appear anywhere in the body, and both can be benign or malignant (cancerous). It’s important to note that a cyst is rarely malignant; however, nearly all cancers are capable of producing cysts. So while it’s not likely that a cyst is cancerous, cancer cells can form cysts on them.

A cyst is a sac filled with air, fluid, or other material, and it can form on any part of the body. They’re caused by infections, excessive production from sebaceous glands, or a foreign body. Because it’s not solid, a cyst feels softer to the touch than a tumor. However, cysts can pose a danger to the patient if it ruptures inside the body.

Tumors are genetic, abnormal masses or tissues that can also form in any part of the body. To determine if a tumor is malignant, doctors will take a sample of the affected tissue or suspicious area and study it under a microscope. Tumors generally aren’t a threat to the patient so long as they’re not malignant and don’t interfere with the body’s functioning.

Translating the Jargon

If you’re diagnosed with a cyst or tumor, it’s likely you’ll hear some jargon as your doctor discusses its pathology. When you understand the terminology, you can ask informed questions and be in control of your treatment. And if you don’t understand something your doctor says, ask her or him to repeat it — or explain it in a different way.

Some common terms include:

  • Tumor — This is a generic term your doctor will use to talk about the lump in general.

  • Mass — This is a lump that’s at least 20 mm in diameter.

  • Nodule — Smaller than a mass, this lump is less than 20 mm at its widest point.

  • Fibroids — Cysts that form on the uterus are called fibroids (also known as leiomyomas or myomas for short). These are benign growths, and women from ages 30 to 40 are most likely to be diagnosed with fibroids. Treatment includes hormone therapy or, for more severe cases, surgery.

  • Polyps — These can be malignant growths and are found on the inner lining of the uterus (called the endometrium) or the lining of the cervix. They are easily mistaken for fibroids.

Talking to Your Doctor

Getting information from your doctor at your initial visit and your follow-up appointment is key to putting your mind at ease and exploring treatment options, if necessary. You need to know specifics about your cyst or tumor so you can take control of your care, get a second opinion, and generally feel at ease.

I always recommend going to doctor’s appointments prepared with questions, especially knowing that you may not understand everything your doctor says. Write your questions down, and don’t be afraid to ask your doctor if you can record your discussion. This allows you to go back and review the conversation later if you forget something.

The following questions can help guide your conversation with your doctor:

At your initial appointment

  • Are there physical clues that tell me if my lump is a tumor or a cyst?

  • What is the least invasive method for diagnosing my lump?

  • What course of action do you recommend?

  • What should I do if symptoms persist?

  • Who will review my pathology slides? What are their qualifications?

  • When will I have results from my lab tests (pathology report)?

  • How will I be contacted to receive those results?

  • Who do I contact if I don’t hear back about my results in a timely manner?

At your follow-up appointment

  • Can you explain my pathology report (lab test results) to me?

  • What kind of tumor do I have? Is it cancerous?

  • What is the tumor’s grade? What does this mean for my treatment and outcome?

  • What are my treatment options?

  • What is the goal for each of these treatment options?

  • What are the risks involved with each treatment option?

  • What treatment plan do you recommend?

  • Will any of the options prevent me from participating in a clinical trial (now or down the road)?

  • Who in your office will be coordinating my follow-up care?

In the end, if I had empowered myself to learn more about my lump before I visited the doctor, I would have saved myself countless hours of worry.

It’s important for women to be informed, ask questions about what’s going on with their bodies, and follow up with research. Taking control of our medical care can help put our minds at ease so we can tackle our lives with grace and dignity.

Dr. Judy Wolf is the chief medical officer at Vermillion, Inc. She received her medical degree from the Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Medicine, and her clinical and research interests are in gynecologic cancers — specifically ovarian cancer.