What does malignant mean?

In medicine, malignant is commonly used to describe a cancerous growth of cells. For example, pathologists use the term malignant neoplasm is used to describe a cancerous tumour. Malignant can also be used to describe a non-cancerous condition that is serious or life-threatening. For example, dangerously high blood pressure is called malignant hypertension. Dangerously high internal body temperature is called malignant hyperthermia. The opposite of malignant is benign.

Features of malignant tumours

A group of cells are considered malignant when they have developed the ability to:

  • Grow uncontrollably
  • Damage surrounding normal tissue
  • Spread to other parts of the body

Malignant tumours can start anywhere in the body and the behaviour of the tumour depends on many factors such as:

  • The type of tumour (see Types of malignant tumours below)
  • The size of the tumour
  • The tumour grade
  • The amount of tumour invasion into the surrounding normal tissue

All of these factors are examined by your pathologist and documented in the pathology report.

Importantly, not all malignant tumours behave the same. For example, some tumours, despite being malignant, are slow-growing and frequently cured while other malignant tumours are almost always fatal. The pathology report provides critical information which will allow your doctor to predict the behaviour of the tumour and select the most appropriate treatment (prediction of behaviour is referred to as prognosis).

Types of malignant tumours

There are many different types of malignant tumours. The type of tumour can only be determined after a tissue sample is examined under the microscope by a pathologist.

Common types of malignant tumours:

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