I don’t think there is anything that my patients find more confusing than when I tell them that their growth is abnormal but benign. They ALL say, “But isn’t abnormal cancerous?” And I say “Not always”. And then they respond with, “what do you mean?” If you want this confusion sorted out, stay tuned!
A prior DermTV episode discussed the most common types of skin precancers, but it didn't explain what a precancer is nor sort out the confusion of the phrase, “it’s benign but abnormal.” Let’s do that now!
First. Cancer and malignant mean the same. All cancerous growths are malignant and given enough time travel and spread to other organs, and by so doing, they cause irreparable damage that sadly kills people. Of course, all cancers are abnormal. But most of the confusion here comes from the word “abnormal” because while everything that’s cancerous is abnormal, not everything that’s abnormal is cancerous. One more time slowly:
Everything that’s cancerous is abnormal, not everything that’s abnormal is cancerous.
The opposite of malignant, or cancerous, is “benign.” But benign, meaning non cancerous… Benign growths can be normal or abnormal.
Huh? Stick with me…
Examples of benign growths that are NORMAL are moles, cysts, birthmarks, and even warts. They are all growths. They’re normal.
But if a growth is benign, meaning non cancerous, and it’s also ABNORMAL, THEN it’s a precancer… a very special growth with bad intentions, but fortunately unable at that point to harm you.
It’s changed from normal. It looks funny. It no longer has all the criteria of a regular normal growth. But the funny looking cells under the microscope tell us it’s a cancer wannabee… so it’s abnormal, but it’s not abnormal ENOUGH to fulfill the criteria of cancer… so it’s precancerous… on its way to becoming a cancer but not there yet. As long as it’s not a full fledged cancer, then it can’t spread and do what cancer so sadly does… It’s not cancer yet, and as we established, anything that’s not cancer is benign.
So abnormal but benign is not cancerous, not dangerous AT THAT TIME, but on it’s way to becoming a cancer. As long as it’s removed completely before it finishes its transformation into a cancer, you are in no danger and it then can’t become cancer.
So let this be another reason to get a skin cancer screening tomorrow if you haven’t had one recently… to find any precancerous growths so you can get them removed before they become cancer.
Your skin is the ONLY organ in your body in which you have complete control over whether you’ll ever get cancer. Just show up for regular exams at least once a year and to skin cancer: JUST SAY NO.