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Benign lung tumors: How to know you don’t need to worry.

Key takeaways:

  • Only 1% of chest CT scans show a solitary pulmonary nodule or small mass, and 99% of those are benign.
  • Hamartomas, or benign lung nodules, are the most common kind and account for about 55% of all tumors.
  • Most benign lung tumors are asymptomatic. Often, they are found incidentally during other imaging procedures.
  • Doctors use a bronchoscopy, CT scan, or ultrasound to locate and evaluate a lung nodule’s size, shape, and color.
  • Benign lung tumors don’t usually need to be treated unless they are painful or disfiguring.

Benign (non-cancerous) lung tumors are quite common. Still, “You have a spot on your lung(s)” can be scary words to hear. Don’t despair — benign tumors are usually not dangerous.

Benign lung tumors don’t spread to other areas of your body. Generally, benign tumors grow slowly, but they can sometimes stop growing or may even shrink. 

These tumors usually don’t require removal or treatment and aren’t life-threatening. While lung tumors may grow and press upon neighboring tissue, they won’t invade, eradicate, or replace them.

Before we dive in, let’s clarify some terms. A tumor measuring an inch or less is called a nodule — this is smaller than a mass. If you have a nodule in your lungs, it’s called a pulmonary nodule. Your doctor might also refer to a nodule or mass as a neoplasm or lung nodule.

Some statistics about lung nodules and masses shows how common benign lung tumors are:

  • One out of 100 CT (computed tomography) scans reveal a pulmonary nodule or mass. Of these, 99% are benign. 
  • A chest X-ray reveals nodules in about one in 500 patients, 60% of which are benign.
  • Some 50% of smokers over 50 have nodules that show up on a CT scan. 

Understanding the anatomy of your lungs.

It’s important to know the anatomy of your lungs so you can understand where tumors, nodules, and masses may appear and what that might mean for your health.

Your lungs are a pair of asymmetrical, pyramid-shaped organs that oxygenate your blood and remove the waste product carbon dioxide.

Your trachea carries air into your lungs through large airways called bronchi. Further into your lungs, the bronchi divide into ever-smaller bronchioles.

The bronchioles lead to clusters of tiny air sacs, your alveoli. Your alveoli filter out carbon dioxide, exchanging it for oxygen with each breath you take. 

The external surface tissue that covers your lungs is called the pleura. Between the lung surface and the pleura is a lubricating fluid that allows your lungs to smoothly expand and contract.

Types of benign lung tumors, nodules, and masses.

There are several types of benign lung tumors, nodules, and masses, and they can be difficult to remember. We’ll go through them one at a time:

  • The most common benign lung nodule is called a hamartoma. Hamartomas are clumps of normal connective tissue (cartilage), fat, and muscle that measure less than 2 inches. They show up on imaging as round, white spots in your lungs. Hamartomas account for about 75% of all benign lung tumors. Nearly 80% of this nodule type occur in your lung’s connective tissues while the remaining 20% show up on the inside of your bronchial tubes. More men than women develop hamartomas by a 2:1 margin
  • Bronchial adenomas are also a common benign lung nodule. Adenomas grow in your bronchi), as well as in the mucus glands or ducts.
  • A less common benign tumor is a papilloma. It grows as a protrusion on the surface of your bronchial tubes. There are three kinds of papilloma:
    • Squamous cells are growths that develop as thin, flat cells on tissue surfaces. Squamous papillomas may occur in children or adults. 
    • Far less common, glandular papillomas develop as a single nodule and in larger airways than a squamous papilloma. It indicates a small number of mixed squamous and glandular papillomas. They can potentially become lung cancer.
    • HPV (human papillomavirus) is not a tumor, but it can cause cervical cancer and lung cancer.
  • Other kinds of benign tumors include chondromas, fibromas, neurofibromas, and lipomas, which are all tumors of your cartilage, fibrous, or fatty tissues.

Do benign lung tumors have symptoms?

Not always. Because symptoms are so rare, more than 90% of lung nodules are found by accident during a routine check-up, a chest X-ray, or a CT scan you took for another reason.

But if you have symptoms, they could include:

  • Mild persistent cough
  • Wheezing, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Rales (rattling sounds when you inhale)

How will my medical practitioner diagnose my lung tumor?

benign lung tumors: Middle aged man holding a bottle of water

Endobronchial ultrasound bronchoscopy (EBUS) uses a bronchoscope (a small flexible tube equipped with a camera) to examine and diagnose several lung conditions. A physician specializing in the respiratory system, or a pulmonologist, inserts the probe into your mouth, trachea, and lungs, often while you are under anesthesia.

Your healthcare team will then use other information about your nodule to determine if it’s benign. Here are some common indicators of benign lung nodules:

  • Small size
  • Slow growth
  • Higher calcium content
  • Smooth, even shape
  • Even color

Fine needle aspiration is one kind of needle biopsy procedure (there are many others). Using the needle, they take a tissue or fluid sample from the abnormal cell growth. 

For this procedure, the technician inserts a thin needle into the abnormal tissue, guided by fluoroscopy or computed tomography.

Your benign tumor probably won’t require treatment.

Unless your benign tumor is so large it’s pressing against neighboring tissues or causes pain or disfigurement, your healthcare team is unlikely to recommend treatment.

If you have fibroid tumors or warts, your doctor will want to monitor them for growth or spread to be sure they aren’t pre-cancerous.

Lung cancer: When a tumor becomes malignant.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in American men and women, according to the American Cancer Society.

There are two types of lung cancer. 

  • Carcinoid tumors are slow-growing neuroendocrine cancer that can appear in your digestive tract or lungs.
  • Lung carcinomas start in the tissues that line your lungs. They can metastasize but don’t always.

Malignant tumors in the lungs may need surgical intervention—a lobectomy (removal of a lung lobe) or a resection (surgical removal) of any surrounding tissue or lymph nodes that may be affected. 

One way to improve your lung cancer treatment options is to detect it at an early stage.

Other health issues that affect the lungs.

Other lung diseases and conditions may cause scarring and lesions in the lungs:

  • Your doctor may refer to your benign tumor as a lesion. A lesion in your lungs is any abnormal change that results from a disease or injury. Lesions are categorized as benign, malignant, or premalignant. A premalignant lesion is a formerly benign area that’s evolving into a malignancy. 
  • A mixed squamous/glandular papilloma is an example of a benign lung nodule that could become malignant.
  • A bacterial or inflammatory disease, such as sarcoidosis or rheumatoid arthritis, can cause lesions.
    • Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that affects multiple organs, mostly your lungs and lymph glands. Abnormal masses or nodules of inflamed tissues (granulomas) can change normal organ structure and possibly function.
    • Benign rheumatoid nodules can form in the lungs or other parts of the body and are typically asymptomatic.
  • Calcified granulomas in the lungs usually occur because of bacterial or fungal infections such as histoplasmosis, a fungal infection common in the central and eastern U.S., South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
    • Granulomatosis (or Wegener’s granulomatosis) is a somewhat rare disorder that causes inflammation of your blood vessels in your lungs, nose, sinuses, throat, or kidneys. It can decrease blood flow to your lungs or other organs.

Ezra can help you detect lung tumors early.

Benign tumors in the lungs are relatively common and typically not an issue to be overly concerned about. Nevertheless, they can sometimes be a precursor to something more serious. In this case, early detection is cancer’s greatest weakness.

You can stay on top of your lung health by booking a regular annual full-body MRI, which includes a low-dose CT scan.