The language of cancer care
As if a cancer diagnosis in and of itself doesn’t cause enough anxiety and uncertainty, cancer terminology can be confusing, too. These simple definitions can help you understand conversations about the disease and treatment methods. Whether the diagnosis was made for you, a family member or friend, learning this language will help you communicate clearly about physical changes, treatment choices and other subjects you will encounter in your journey.
If a term you’ve heard isn’t listed below, you’ll find more information on these two websites:
The use of drugs, in addition to surgery and/or radiation, to treat cancer.
Alopecia: The loss of hair from the body and/or scalp.
Alternative therapy: The use of an unproven therapy instead of standard (proven) therapy. Some alternative therapies have dangerous or even life-threatening side effects. With others, the main danger is the loss of opportunity to benefit from standard therapy. These treatments are not taught widely in medical schools, not generally used in hospitals and not usually reimbursed by medical insurance companies. The American Cancer Society recommends that patients considering the use of any alternative or complementary therapy discuss this with their health care team. See also “Complementary therapy.”
Anemia: Low red blood cell count. Symptoms include shortness of breath, lack of energy and fatigue.
Anorexia: Absence or loss of appetite for food.
Antiemetic: A medicine that prevents or controls nausea and/or vomiting.
Ascites: An accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, resulting in a swollen, uncomfortable condition.
Benign: Word used to describe a tumor which is not cancerous.
Biological therapy: Treatment to stimulate or restore the ability of the immune system to fight infection and disease. Also called immunotherapy.
Biopsy: The removal of a sample of tissue, which is then examined under a microscope to check for cancer cells. When only a sample of tissue is removed, the procedure is called an incisional biopsy; when the whole tumor is removed, it is an excisional biopsy. Removing tissue or fluid with a needle is called needle biopsy or needle aspiration.
Blood count: The number of red blood cells, white cells, and platelets in a given sample of blood.
Bone marrow: The inner spongy tissue of a bone where red blood cells, white cells and platelets are formed.
Bone marrow biopsy: The withdrawal of bone marrow through a hollow needle for pathological examination, usually from the breast bone (sternum) or the hip bone. This easy, safe procedure takes about 10 minutes. Local anesthetic keeps discomfort to a minimum.
Bone marrow transplantation: A procedure in which doctors replace marrow destroyed by treatment with high doses of anticancer drugs or radiation. The replacement marrow may be taken from the patient before treatment, or it may be donated by another person. When the patient’s own marrow is used, the procedure is called autologous bone marrow transplantation.
Brachytherapy: Internal radiation treatment achieved by implanting radioactive material directly into a tumor or very close to it. Sometimes called “internal radiation therapy.”
Cancer: A tumor made up of cells that multiply and invade healthy tissues in the body. It can eventually spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system. Cancer is a general name for over 100 diseases in which abnormal cells grow out of control.
Carcinogen: A substance or agent that is known to cause cancer.
Carcinoma: The most common kind of cancer, which arises in the layers of cells covering the body’s surface or lining internal organs and various glands.
Catheter: A tube used for injection or withdrawal of fluid.
Cell: The basic structure of living tissues. All plants and animals are made up of one or more cells.
Central Venous Access Device: A catheter placed in a large central vein under sterile conditions in order to give medication, fluids or blood products, e.g., HICKMAN® catheter, GROSHONG® catheter, Port-a-cath, PICC.
Chemotherapy: The treatment of cancer with chemicals (drugs) formulated to kill cancer cells and stop them from growing.
Clinical trials: A study conducted with cancer patients, usually to evaluate a new treatment for side effects and effectiveness.
Colony-stimulating factors: Substances that stimulate the production of blood cells. Treatment with colony-stimulating factors (CSF) can help the blood-forming tissue recover from the effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These include granulocyte colony-stimulating factors (G-CSF) and granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factors (GM-CSF).
Combination chemotherapy: The use of several drugs at the same time or in a particular order to treat cancer.
Complementary therapy: The use of various modalities, e.g., acupuncture, herbs, massage, energy forces, biologic treatments, to supplement or enhance conventional medical treatment or promote overall well-being. Complementary therapies may help relieve certain cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. The American Cancer Society recommends that patients considering the use of complementary therapy discuss this with their health care team. See also “Alternative therapy.”
CT or CAT scan: Detailed pictures of areas of the body created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine. Also called computer tomography scan or computed axial tomography scan.
Electron beam: A stream of particles that produces high-energy radiation to treat cancer.
External radiation: Radiation therapy that uses a machine located outside the body to aim high-energy rays at cancer cells.
Gastrointestinal (GI): Having to do with the digestive tract, which includes the stomach and the intestines.
GROSHONG® catheter: A GROSHONG® catheter is a soft, rubber tube, which is placed in a large vein in the body, creating a pathway for the insertion of medication, nutritional supplements or blood. It also allows withdrawal of blood for testing without repeated needle sticks. The catheter may remain in a patient’s body as long as it is needed–a few weeks to a few years.
Hematologist: A physician who specializes in blood disorders, such as leukemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma.
HICKMAN® catheter: A central venous catheter system with a small, flexible hollow tube placed into a vein in a patient’s chest or neck. The tube has an injection cap on the end and a clamp. Medications or other fluids can be injected through the tube, rather than through repeated needle sticks through the skin.
High Dose Rate Brachytherapy (HDR): A type of internal radiation. Each treatment is given for a few minutes while the radioactive source is in place. The source of radioactivity is removed between treatments.
Hormones: Chemicals produced by glands in the body. Hormones control the actions of certain cells or organs.
Hormone therapy: Treatment sometimes used to keep cancer cells from growing and multiplying.
Immune system: The cells, organs and biological processes that defend the body against infection and disease.
Immunotherapy: Therapy that stimulates the body’s defense mechanism to attack cancer cells.
Implant: A small container of radioactive material placed in or near cancerous tissue.
Infusion: The process of putting fluids and/or medications into a vein over a period of time.
Infusion pumps: Small, preloaded mechanical devices used to continuously administer intravenous chemotherapy over a designated time.
Injection: The use of a syringe to push fluids into the body; often called a “shot.”
In situ: A very early stage of cancer in which the tumor is localized to a single area.
Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT): Technology for precisely “shaping” an external radiation dose. A computer controls radiation beam size and intensity as the beam enters the patient’s body from various angles. The greater precision of the radiation beam delivers a higher dose to the tumor and a lower dose to nearby normal tissue.
Internal radiation: A type of therapy in which a radioactive substance is implanted into or close to the area needing treatment.
Intramuscular (IM): Into a muscle; some anticancer drugs are given by IM injection.
Intravenous (IV): Into a vein; anticancer drugs are often given by IV injection or infusion.
Invasive: A staging term used to describe cancer that has spread to tissue surrounding the immediate area where the disease first appeared in the body.
Leukemia: A cancer that begins in blood-forming tissues (bone marrow, lymph nodes and spleen), which are important components of the immune system.
Linear accelerator: A machine that creates high energy radiation to treat cancers by using electricity to form a stream of fast-moving subatomic particles. Also called megavoltage (MeV) linear accelerator or a linac.
Lymph nodes: Small, bean-shaped organs located along the channels of the lymphatic system. Bacteria or cancer cells that enter the lymphatic system may be found in the nodes. Also called lymph glands.
Lymphomas: Cancers born in the cells of the lymph system–the body’s circulatory network for filtering out impurities.
Malignant: Word used to describe a tumor made up of cancerous cells.
Melanoma: A cancer that starts in the pigment cells located among the layers of the skin.
Metastasis: The spread of cancer from its original site to other parts of the body, usually through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. When cancer has metastasized, it has a higher staging number and is more widely dispersed in the body.
Monoclonal antibodies: One of several substances used in biological therapy.
MRI: A procedure using a magnet linked to a computer to create pictures of areas inside the body. Also called magnetic resonance imaging.
Mucositis: Inflammation of the mucous membranes.
Myeloma: A cancer of the protein-producing plasma cells in the bone marrow.
Myelosuppression: A fall in blood counts caused by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Nadir: The lowest point to which white blood cell or platelet counts fall after chemotherapy.
Oncologist: A physician trained to treat patients who have cancer.
Oncology Nutritionist: A registered dietitian (RD) specializing in the nutrition care of patients who have cancer.
Palliative Care: Care provided to keep the patient as comfortable as possible, rather than to cure a disease.
Pathologist: A doctor who studies cells and tissues to determine if a disease is present.
PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter): A small, flexible tube inserted in one of the veins near a patient’s elbow to allow easy administration of medication or other fluids without repeated needle sticks.
Platelet: One of the three kinds of circulating blood cells. Responsible for clotting.
Protocol: The outline or plan of a clinical trial.
Radiation therapy: The use of high-energy penetrating rays or subatomic particles to treat disease. Types of radiation include X-ray, electron beam, alpha and beta particles, and gamma rays. Radioactive substances include cobalt, radium, iridium and cesium.
Red blood cells: Cells that supply oxygen to tissues throughout the body.
Remission: The decrease or disappearance of signs and symptoms of disease.
Simulation: The use of special X-ray pictures to plan radiation treatment. The target area is precisely located and marked to guide accurate aiming and positioning in future therapy appointments as treatment progresses.
Stage: The extent of a cancer, especially whether the disease has spread from its point of origin (in situ) to nearby tissue (invasive) or to other parts of the body (metastatic). The higher the number, the more widely dispersed the cancer is in the body.
Staging: An organized process of determining how far a cancer has spread. Involves physical examination, blood tests, X-rays, scans, and sometimes surgery. Knowing the stage helps determine the most appropriate treatment and prognosis.
Stem cells: Primitive or early cells found in bone marrow and blood vessels that give rise to all blood cells.
Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) is a radiation therapy method by which highly focused doses of radiation are delivered to a target from one or more angles. This outpatient procedure has minimal effects on surrounding tissue and organs and minimizes the complications and recovery time associated with open brain surgery. Since this single-session treatment has such a dramatic effect on the targeted tissue, changes are considered "surgical" even though no incision is made. A radiation oncologist, a neurosurgeon and a radiation physicist work together to create an individualized, computerized treatment plan for each patient.
Stereotactic radiotherapy (SRT) is a radiation therapy method. An optimum radiation treatment dose for a tumor is subdivided into smaller, cumulative doses that are given over a period of several days. Because the total dose is given in installments, radiation side effects are usually essened since normal cells have time to heal between treatments. A radiation oncologist, a neurosurgeon and a radiation physicist work together to create an individualized, computerized treatment plan for each patient. (See stereotactic radiosurgery)
Stomatitis: Sores on the inside lining of the mouth.
Treatment port or field: The place on the body at which the radiation beam is aimed.
Tumor: An abnormal growth of cells or tissues; tumors may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).
Tumor markers: Chemicals in the blood produced by certain cancers.
Ultrasonography: An exam in which sound waves are bounced off tissues and the echoes are converted into a picture (sonogram).
White blood cells: The blood cells responsible for fighting infection.
X-rays: High-energy radiation used in low doses to diagnose disease or injury, and in high doses to treat cancer.
HICKMAN and GROSHONG are registered trademarks of C. R. Bard, Inc. and its related company BCR, Inc.