Cancer Terms: How To Better Understand Your Diagnosis

Written By:

Terms used in a cancer diagnosis may sound like a foreign language at first. Understanding the terminology of your diagnosis and treatment plan is important to ensure you are able to make informed decisions about your care. This glossary of cancer-related terms will help you understand and better communicate with your medical team to achieve the best care possible.

Page Topics
  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F
  7. G
  8. H
  9. I
  10. J
  11. K
  12. L
  13. M
  14. N
  15. O
  16. P
  17. Q
  18. R
  19. S
  20. T
  21. U
  22. V
  23. W
  24. X
  25. Y
  26. Z
  27. Related Pages

A

Ablation (a-BLAY-shun):

Removing or destroying a body part or tissue to stop its function. The process may be achieved through multiple methods, including surgery, drugs, heat, cold, hormones or radiofrequency. 

Acute (uh-CUTE): 

Symptoms that begin suddenly and worsen quickly but do not last long; not chronic.

Adenoma (a-deh-NOH-muh):

A tumor made up of glandular cells and tissue. It may be benign or malignant.

Adjuvant therapy (A-joo-vunt THAYR-uh-pee):

Additional cancer treatment administered after a primary treatment to decrease risk of the cancer’s return. Treatments may include radiation, chemotherapy, targeted therapy or hormone therapy. 

Alopecia (A-loh-PEE-shuh):

Loss of hair, which can be a result of certain cancer treatments and diseases. Hair loss may include all body hair.

Alternative medicine:

Treatment practices used in place of or in addition to standard medical treatments. Most alternative medical treatments have undergone less research than the scientifically backed conventional therapies. Examples include magnet therapy, specialized diets, herbal preparations and megadose vitamins.

Angiogram definition

Angiogram (AN-jee-oh-gram):

An X-ray that reveals the blood vessels and blood flow in the body. Often a dye is injected into the artery or vein to make the blood vessels more visible. It can be used to identify tumors, blood clots, artery blockages and aneurysms.

Antiemetic (AN-tee-eh-MEH-tik):

A medication that helps stop nausea.

Aplastic anemia (AY-PLAS-tik uh-NEE-mee-uh):

A condition where bone marrow cannot produce enough red blood cells.

Asbestos (as-BES-tus):

Asbestos is a naturally occuring mineral made up of durable heat-resistant fibers that can cause cancer when inhaled or ingested. Asbestos most commonly causes mesothelioma, but it can also cause lung, laryngeal and ovarian cancers.

Asbestos-related cancer:

Asbestos-related cancer develops as a result of inhaling asbestos fibers. Symptoms typically remain hidden for 20 to 50 years after initial exposure.

Atypical (AY-TIH-pih-kul):

A condition, state or behavior that is not normal. In medicine, it could be used to describe a lesion, cells or a case where cancer symptoms are considered abnormal.

B

Benign and malignant definitions

Benign (beh-NINE):

Tumors or cells that are not cancerous. Also known as nonmalignant, they may increase in size but do not spread to other parts of the body.

Bilateral (by-LA-teh-rul):

Impacting both the left and right sides of the body. Medically, in regard to cancer, it refers to cancer located in paired organs (such as breasts or kidneys).

Biopsy (BYE-opp-see):

A diagnostic procedure where a small amount of tissue is removed from your body for examination under a microscope. It is the primary method of definitively diagnosing cancer. 

Bone marrow (bone MAYR-oh):

The thick and spongy liquid inside of bones that makes blood cells. It creates white blood cells that fight infections, red blood cells that carry oxygen and platelets that assist in blood clotting.

Bone marrow transplant:

A medical procedure that replaces unhealthy bone marrow in one patient with the healthy bone marrow cells from a donor.

Brachytherapy (BRAH-key-THAYR-uh-pee):

This treatment method administers radiation through tiny radioactive seeds or pellets inserted in the body near the tumor(s). Also known as internal radiation therapy. 

C

Cancer (KAN-ser):

Diseases featuring abnormal and uncontrolled cell growth that can invade nearby tissue. With over 100 cancer variants, it can occur almost anywhere in the human body and can easily spread.

Carcinogen (kar-SIH-noh-jin):

Any substance that can cause cancer.

Carcinoma (KAR-sih-NOH-muh):

Cancer that develops in your skin or the lining of your internal organs.

CAT scan:

An X-ray that rotates around the patient to create detailed images of the inside of the body from various angles. These images can be used to create a three-dimensional view of tissues and organs. It’s also known as a CT or computed tomography scan.

Central line:

A thin plastic tube inserted into a large vein under the skin on your chest to more easily inject medications and draw blood samples. It is also known as a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line.

Chemo brain definition

Chemo brain (KEE-moh brain):

A side effect following chemotherapy where patients may experience a loss of memory, feel confused and find it hard to concentrate.

Chemotherapy (KEE-moh-THAYR-uh-pee):

Chemotherapy is a treatment method that uses drugs to kill cancer cells or stop their growth.

Chronic (KRAH-nik):

A persistent condition or disease that lasts for a long time.

Clinical trial:

A clinical trial is a strictly controlled scientific study that evaluates the effectiveness of new medications and treatments on human patients. Trials typically go through several phases of research, often lasting two to four years.

Complete blood count (CBC):

A blood test that measures three types of blood cells: Red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

Computed tomography scan (kum-PYOO-ted toh-MAH-gruh-fee skan):

See CAT scan.

D

Diagnosis (DY-ug-NOH-sis):

Diagnosis is the use of signs and symptoms to identify a disease, condition or injury.

Drug resistance:

When cancer cells don’t respond to medications or treatment.

Dysplasia (dis-PLAY-zhuh):

The presence of abnormal cells in an organ or tissue. The cells are not cancerous but have the potential to develop into cancer.

E

Edema (eh-DEE-muh):

The swelling of body parts as a result of excess fluid buildup in the body tissue. 

External radiation:

Radiation therapy delivered over several weeks as an outpatient service during regular hospital visits. 

F

Flow cytometry (floh sy-TAH-meh-tree):

A lab test that identifies how quickly tumor cells are growing.

G

Grade:

In cancer terms, a grade is assigned to an individual’s cancer to reflect how aggressive it is. High-grade cancer cells grow and spread rapidly, as opposed to low-grade cancer cells, which resemble normal cells.

Growth factor:

A substance made by the human body that helps cells grow and divide. Some growth factors can be created in a lab and incorporated into immunotherapy plans.

H

High risk:

A term applied to those with a greater chance of developing cancer than the general public.

Hodgkin lymphoma (HOJ-kin lim-FOH-muh):

A cancer that develops in the immune system and features abnormal white blood cells called Reed-Sternberg cells. See also Lymphoma.

Hormone therapy:

A treatment that deprives cancer cells of the hormones they need to grow, effectively slowing or stopping the cancer’s spread.

Hospice (HOS-pis):

A method of care for individuals nearing the end of their lives who may have ceased treatment to cure or control their illness.

I

Imaging studies:

Safe and noninvasive tests that utilize radio waves and a magnetic field to create detailed images of the body’s internal organs and systems. These can include CAT scans, MRIs, X-rays and ultrasounds.

Immunosuppressive therapy (IH-myoo-noh-suh-PREH-siv THAYR-uh-pee):

A treatment method that decreases the activity of your body’s immune system, deliberately reducing your ability to fight infections and diseases like cancer. It is often used to prevent a patient’s body from rejecting a bone marrow or organ transplant. Some forms of the therapy may increase the risk of developing cancer.

Immunotherapy (IH-myoo-noh-THAYR-uh-pee):

Immunotherapy is a treatment method that aims to either stimulate or suppress the immune system to help your body fight cancer, infection and other diseases. Substances used in this type of treatment include vaccines, cytokines and monoclonal antibodies. It is also known as biologic therapy.

Implant:

An object or substance placed in the body as a prosthesis or for treatment purposes. For example, radiation therapy can be delivered via radioactive material placed in or near a tumor. 

Inoperable (in-AH-peh-ruh-bul):

A medical condition that cannot be treated through surgery.

In situ (in SY-too):

Term used to describe cancer cells that have not spread. It literally translates to “in its original place.”

Internal radiation definition

Internal radiation (in-TER-nul RAY-dee-AY-shun):

Radiation therapy delivered via radioactive material being swallowed, injected into the bloodstream or placed in tubes implanted into the tumor. This treatment typically requires medical monitoring and a hospital stay.

J

Jaundice (JAWN-dis):

A medical condition evidenced by yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes. It occurs as a result of liver dysfunction, a blocked bile duct or excessive breakdown of red blood cells.  

K

KPS:

A method of measuring a cancer patient’s ability to complete daily tasks. Scores can be used in identifying a prognosis, determining eligibility for a clinical trial or measuring changes in a patient’s daily function. It is also known as Karnofsky Performance Status. 

L

Laryngeal cancer (luh-RIN-jee-ul KAN-ser):

Cancer that develops in tissues of the larynx. This section of the throat holds the vocal cords and is used for talking, swallowing and breathing.

Leukemia (loo-KEE-mee-uh):

Cancer that develops in blood-forming tissue such as bone marrow, leading to an increase in the creation of abnormal blood cells.

Locally invasive:

A cancerous tumor that can spread to the tissue surrounding it.

Lung cancer (lung KAN-ser):

Cancer that develops in the tissues of the lung, typically among the cells lining air passages. The leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., it can be caused by asbestos exposure, smoking, secondhand smoke and other risk factors.

Lymph nodes (limf nodes):

Part of the body’s immune system, they act like filters that remove germs from the body. They also contain white blood cells, known as lymphocytes, that fight infection.

Lymphocyte (LIM-foh-site):

A type of white blood cell critical to the body’s immune system. Lymphocytes are made in bone marrow and are found in blood and lymph tissue.

Lymphoma (lim-FOH-muh):

Cancer that affects lymphocytes, or white blood cells critical to the body’s immune system. The lymphatic system includes bone marrow, lymph nodes, thymus gland and spleen. Lymphoma diagnoses have two common types, Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin, differentiated by the type of white blood cell affected. 

M

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (mag-NEH-tik REH-zuh-nunts IH-muh-jing:

A noninvasive medical imaging procedure combining radio waves and a powerful magnet to create detailed images of the inside of the body. The quality of the images is superior to those revealed through X-rays and CAT scans.

Malignant (muh-LIG-nant):

Cancer cells that are capable of invading and destroying nearby tissue. They can also spread to other areas of the body. 

Mammogram (MA-muh-gram):

An X-ray of the breast and surrounding tissue.

Mastectomy (ma-STEK-toh-mee):

The surgical removal of all or part of the breast.

Mass:

The medical term for “lump.”

Melanoma (MEH-luh-NOH-muh):

Cancer that develops in the skin cells that produce the pigment that gives skin its color, known as melanin.

Mesothelioma (MEH-zoh-THEE-lee-OH-muh):

Mesothelioma is a tumor affecting the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart. It is rare and incurable when malignant, but can be benign. Inhalation of asbestos particles increases the risk of developing these tumors.

Metastasis definition

Metastasis (meh-TASS-tuh-sis):

The spread of cancer from its origin point in the body. When used as a verb by doctors to describe this spread, they say the cancer has “metastasized.”

Myeloma (my-uh-LOH-muh):

Cancer that develops from the overproduction of abnormal plasma cells in bone marrow. It is often referred to as “multiple myeloma.” 

N

Nadir (NAY-deer):

In cancer terms, the point when a patient’s blood count is at its lowest after chemotherapy.

Neoadjuvant therapy (NEE-oh-A-joo-vant THAYR-uh-pee):

Cancer treatment administered in an effort to reduce the size of a tumor before a primary treatment, such as surgery. Neoadjuvant therapies may include radiation, chemotherapy or hormone therapy. 

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (non-HOJ-kin lim-FOH-muh):

Cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, affecting white blood cells known as lymphocytes. It is differentiated from Hodgkin lymphoma by the lack of Reed-Sternberg cells. See also Lymphoma.

O

Oncology (ahn-COLL-uh-gee):

The medical study of cancer. Specialized doctors in this field are called oncologists.

Opioids (OH-pee-OYDS):

Powerful (and potentially addictive) pain relief medications. They include drugs such as dilaudid, fentanyl, morphine and codeine.

Osteosarcoma (OS-tee-oh-sar-KOH-muh):

The most common form of bone cancer.

Ovarian cancer (oh-VAYR-ee-un KAN-ser):

Cancer that develops in tissues of the ovaries, the female reproductive glands that produce eggs.

P

Partial response (PAR-shul reh-SPONTS):

A reduction in a tumor’s size or a decrease in the extent of cancer found in the body. Also known as partial remission.

Pathologist (puh-THAH-loh-jist):

A medical specialist who diagnoses and classifies diseases through the study of cell and tissue samples.

Peritoneal mesothelioma (PAYR-ih-toh-NEE-ul MEH-zoh-THEE-lee-OH-muh):

Peritoneal mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by the ingestion of asbestos fibers. It affects the peritoneum, the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen.

Pleural mesothelioma definition

Pleural mesothelioma (PLUH-ruhl MEH-zoh-THEE-lee-OH-muh)

Pleural mesothelioma is a cancer that develops in the lining of the lungs instead of inside the lung, caused through the inhalation of asbestos.

Port:

A medical device that enables medicine, nutrients and blood products to be provided intravenously. Inserted under the skin and connected to a vein, it removes the repetitive need for needle sticks when starting an IV or drawing blood.

Primary cancer:

The original cancerous tumor identified in your body. If the cancer spreads in the body, it is known as metastasis.

Primary site:

The organ or location where cancer first develops in the body. Even if the cancer continues to spread, it is always identified by its primary origination site.

Prognosis (prog-NOH-sis):

Prognosis is the most likely outcome or projected course of the disease, including chances of recovery or potential recurrence.

Q

Quality of life:

The level of enjoyment a person gets out of life, partially determined by their health, comfort and ability to participate in daily life events. Quality of life is a measured factor in many cancer clinical trials, in which researchers study how to improve the lives of cancer patients.

R

Radiation therapy (RAY-dee-ay-shun THAYR-uh-pee):

A treatment method utilizing radiation to shrink tumors and destroy cancer cells. Also known as “radiotherapy.”

Recurrence (ree-CUR-ents):

The return of cancer after a completed treatment. It may occur “local,” in the same location as the previous cancer; “regional,” near where it began; or “distant,” farther away in the body.

Refractory (reh-FRAK-tor-ee):
In medical terms, it describes a disease or condition that does not improve with treatment. Also referred to as resistant.

Remission (reh-MIH-shun):

The signs and symptoms of cancer are gone, confirming the disease is under control. A complete remission occurs when all signs and symptoms are eradicated. A partial remission is when your signs and symptoms are reduced but not completely gone.  

Resection (ree-SEK-shun):

The surgical removal of tissue or organs from the body.

Resistant:

See also Refractory.

Risk factor:

Anything that increases an individual’s chance of developing a disease. Examples of cancer risk factors include use of tobacco products, family history of cancer and exposure to known carcinogens such as asbestos.

S

Staging definition and cancer spread by stage

Sarcoma (sar-KOH-muh):

Cancer that develops in the bone, fat, muscle, cartilage, blood vessels or other connective tissue.

Screenings:

Examinations searching for cancer in people who have no cancer symptoms.

Secondary cancer:

A cancer that has spread, or metastasized, to another part of the body.

Side effects:

Undesired reactions to drugs or medical treatments. Examples of well-known cancer treatment side effects include hair loss, fatigue and nausea.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SKWAY-mus sel KAR-sih-NOH-muh):

Cancer that develops in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells located in the tissue that makes up the surface of the skin, the linings of hollow organs and the respiratory and digestive tracts. It is also known as epidermoid carcinoma.

Staging:

In medical terminology, staging describes the extent of a cancer’s invasion of the body. It is usually determined based on the tumor’s size (if any), whether the lymph nodes are affected and if the disease has spread to other parts of the body. Cancer stages range from 0 through 4, with higher numbers indicating advanced stages.

Surgical margin (SER-jih-kul MAR-jin):

An edge of healthy tissue removed along with the tumor being cut out of the body.

T

Targeted therapy:

Treatment method that identifies and zeroes in on specific types of cancer cells. The aim is to narrow the treatment’s focus to cause less harm to the body’s normal cells.

Tumor (TOO-mer):

An abnormal mass of body tissue that develops when cells grow and replicate more than they should or fail to die when they should. Tumors can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous).

U

Ultrasound (UL-truh-sownd):

A medical procedure bouncing high-energy sound waves off of internal organs, revealing images of the tissues and organs for closer study.

Unilateral (YOO-nih-LA-teh-rul):

Impacting one side of the body. 

V

Vaccine (vak-SEEN):

A substance developed to trigger the immune system to produce antibodies and provide immunity against one or more diseases. In cancer treatment, it can be used to assist the body in recognizing and destroying cancer cells.

W

Wedge resection (wej ree-SEK-shun):

A surgery that removes a triangle-shaped slice of tissue. Often used as a means to remove a tumor and a small section of healthy tissue around it.

X

X-ray (EX-ray):

A procedure using radiation to reveal images of the inside of the body. The findings are used in the diagnostic process. High-dosage radiation X-rays are also used as a treatment for cancer.

Y

Yervoy (YER-voy):

A medication used to treat a variety of cancers. As an immunotherapy drug, it improves immune cells’ ability to kill cancer cells by binding with CTLA-4 proteins. May be used alone or in conjunction with other drugs to treat certain cancers such as malignant pleural mesothelioma. 

Z

Zirabev (ZEER-uh-bev):

A drug, also known as bevacizumab, that treats a multitude of cancers, including mesothelioma and non-small cell lung cancer, by binding to proteins called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). 

Making knowledgeable decisions with your cancer care team can only be achieved through a better understanding of the words associated with your diagnosis and treatment plan. This glossary of cancer terms and definitions serves as a resource to make your cancer journey a little easier.