How To Talk Doctor! Lesson 5.

Lesson 5: “-oma”.

-oma = “Tumor” or “swelling”.

Though this is not a perfect rule, when you hear “-oma” on the end of a word, it usually suggests cancer of some sort.

Used alone with a prefix that designates a tissue type, “-oma” classically has a connotation that suggests a benign tumor rather than a malignant one. (Ex: adenoma = benign tumor of a glandular epithelial cell type; chondroma = benign tumor composed of cartilage.) That’s not always true, though. So don’t depend on it.

Let’s try it!

“-oma”-words that have to do with tumors:

Carcinoma – This is a general term for a neoplasia (neo = new; plasm = growth) that originates from an epithelial cell type. (The body is made of four main cell types: epithelial, connective, muscle, and nerve.)

Epithelial cells cover things, secrete things, and transport things from one side of a membrane to another. Epithelial cells constitute the skin, the linings of the mucous membranes, glands, the lining of the bladder, and the linings of various ducts and tubes within the body.

After age 45, more than 90% of all tumors are derived from cells of epithelial origin.

The Culprits.

Lymphoma – Classically used to describe neoplasias of white blood cells (immune cells) that tend to stay in discrete masses. (There’s some overlap with “leukemias”, which are neoplasias of white blood cells that classically involve the bone marrow and often present with tumor cells in the blood.)

This is what a “mantle cell lymphoma” looks like under a microscope. I saw a patient with this type of lymphoma just last week.

Lipoma – A benign tumor composed of fat cells. (Lipos = fat)

There are also malignant tumors composed of fat cells, known as liposarcomas. My first-ever surgery as a third-year medical student was actually a liposarcoma removal. The thing was beach-ball-sized. And guess who got to hold it out of the way as the surgeons removed its connections to the patient’s abdomen? That’s right! My first surgery experience consisted in standing with my arms completely wrapped around a heavy, gigantoid tumor made of fat cells. For at least four hours.

It looked a little like this:

Have you hugged your liposarcoma today?

Incidentaloma – This is a tumor (or other finding) found by coincidence on an imaging study that was actually looking for something else entirely. These can be benign or life-threatening, and are often completely asymptomatic (a = without; symptomatic =….well, you got it).

This was an MRI study of the lumbar spine (the stack of rectangular objects in the middle). This patient also has 'arrow sign': the radiologists are drawing attention to a mass around the distribution of the left adrenal gland. Surprise!

“-oma”-words that don’t necessarily have to do with tumor (except maybe in the Latin sense of the word):

Glaucoma – This is a group of eye diseases characterized by certain changes in the visual field and the cup of the optic nerve. Often associated with high pressure inside the eye.

This is what a doc is looking at when they shine a bright light into your eye. This is what the back inside surface of the eye is supposed to look like.

This is glaucoma. Notice that the optic nerve (the circle in the middle) looks like a cup; the indentation in the middle is far bigger than it’s supposed to be.

Stoma – This is an opening in the body that may resemble a mouth. Sometimes refers to a hole made in the body and maintained to allow drainage.


MOMA – This is a museum in New York.

It’s pretty swell, but I don’t think that counts.

Now go forth and understand some doctor-talk!


Robbins and Cotran. Pathologic Basis of Disease. 7th edition. Elsevier, 2005.

Junqueira, Luis Carlos; Carneiro, Jose. Basic Histology: text and atlas. 11th edition. McGraw-Hill, 2005.


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If you use this as if it were real medical information, I will come to your home and hug your beach-ball for at least four hours. It will almost certainly confuse your children.

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 12:51 am  Comments (2)  
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