Soft-Tissue Tumors vs. Skin Cysts: What Is the Difference?

Soft-Tissue Tumors vs. Skin Cysts: What Is the Difference?

Discovering a lump or bump under your skin can set off alarm bells, and for most of us, the first thing we think of is cancer. The good news is that most of those lumps are harmless. The not-so-good news: There’s no real way to tell which type of lump you have without a medical evaluation.

Case in point: Cysts and soft-tissue tumors can both cause lumps, but it can be difficult to differentiate between them. Plus, both can occur just about anywhere, making it harder to tell the difference without a doctor’s help.

Cysts and tumors require different treatments, and Michael H. Tarlowe, MD, is skilled in treating both. At his practice in Deerfield Beach, Florida, he uses imaging and other techniques to differentiate between skin lumps, so he can develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Cysts vs soft-tissue tumors: similarities and differences

Although these growths may look similar under your skin, they differ in some important ways.


A cyst is a pocket that contains fluid and other material. The cyst has its own outer “wall” that contains the fluid, similar to how a blister forms on the surface of your skin.

Cysts can form around foreign objects, like a splinter or an ingrown hair. They can also form around skin cells that develop and move downward instead of moving toward the surface of the skin where they can be shed. These cells multiply beneath the skin’s surface, causing irritation and developing into a cyst. Other cysts form as the result of an infection.

Soft-tissue tumors

Soft-tissue tumors form when cells grow and multiply abnormally. These tumors can form just about anywhere on your body — even between muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. Although most people associate the word “tumor” with malignant cancer, tumors can also be benign.

Soft-tissue tumors initially remain confined to a local area, but as they grow, they may extend into other nearby areas. In the case of malignant tumors, the cancer cells may spread or metastasize to other areas of the body as well.

Telling the difference

Some skin cysts can be diagnosed with a skin exam. But in other cases, the only way to know if a lump is a cyst or a tumor is to have it medically evaluated. 

Typically, that involves a biopsy, a simple procedure to remove some of the material from inside the lump. The material can be evaluated under a microscope to determine its composition, such as whether cancer cells are present.

In certain situations, Dr. Tarlowe uses blood tests, diagnostic imaging, or other exams or evaluations to aid in diagnosis. These “extra steps” can be useful in mapping out treatment, as well.

Treating cysts and tumors

Not surprisingly, cysts and tumors require different approaches to treatment. 


Because cysts typically aren’t harmful to your health, most don’t require any medical treatment. Removal typically is recommended when a cyst is inflamed or infected or if it forms in an area, like a joint, where it interferes with movement.

Some cysts can be treated by draining them. Other cysts require surgical excision (cutting the cyst away) to prevent it from reforming.

Soft-tissue tumors

If a biopsy shows that a tumor is cancerous, treatment may consist of surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Sometimes, local lymph nodes are biopsied to determine if the cancer has spread.

Benign skin tumors like lipomas can be removed during an outpatient procedure. Dr. Tarlowe first numbs your skin, then makes a small incision to access the tumor and remove it. For deeper tumors, surgery will probably be more complex and may be performed on an inpatient or outpatient basis.

Don’t ignore a lump

Even though most lumps are harmless, the fact that some can be cancerous means that a lump should always be medically evaluated. If you have an unusual skin lump, call 954-210-7127 or book an appointment online with Dr. Tarlowe today.

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