Below, we have curated 101 of the most useful cancer terms based on the feedback of patients and their care partners.
Symptoms or signs that begin and worsen quickly; not chronic.
Additional cancer treatment given after the primary treatment to lower the risk that the cancer will come back. Adjuvant therapy may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy or biological therapy.
A condition in which the number of red blood cells is below normal.
A drug or substance that keeps new blood vessels from forming. In cancer treatment, angiogenesis inhibitors may prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow. Also called antiangiogenesis agent.
A protein made by plasma cells (type of white blood cell) in response to an antigen (a substance that causes the body to make an immune response against that substance). Each antibody can bind to only one specific antigen. The purpose of this binding is to help destroy the antigen. Some antibodies destroy antigens directly. Others make it easier for white blood cells to destroy the antigen. An antibody is a type of immunoglobulin, which is a protein that helps the body fight infection.
axillary lymph node
A lymph node in the armpit region that drains lymph from the breast and nearby areas.
Not cancerous. Benign tumors may grow larger but do not spread to other parts of the body. Also called nonmalignant.
A type of treatment that uses substances made from living organisms to treat disease. These substances may occur naturally in the body or may be made in the laboratory. Some biological therapies stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection, and other diseases. Other biological therapies attack specific cancer cells, which may help keep them from growing or kill them. They may also lessen certain side effects caused by some cancer treatments. Types of biological therapy include immunotherapy (such as vaccines, cytokines, and some antibodies), gene therapy, and some targeted therapies. Also called biological response modifier therapy, biotherapy, and BRM therapy.
A biological molecule found in blood, other body fluids, or tissues that is a sign of a normal or abnormal process, or of a condition or disease. A biomarker may be used to see how well the body responds to a treatment for a disease or condition. Biomarker testing or tumor profiling reads the instruction manual of cancer cells to identify the mistakes, or genomic mutations that may cause your cancer to grow. Knowing this information can help determine the best treatment plan for you. Also called molecular marker and signature molecule.
The removal of cells or tissues for examination by a pathologist. The pathologist may study the tissue under a microscope or perform other tests on the cells or tissue. There are many different types of biopsy procedures. The most common types include: (1) incisional biopsy- a sample of tissue is removed; (2) excisional biopsy- an entire lump or suspicious area is removed; and (3) needle biopsy- a sample of tissue or fluid is removed with a needle. When a wide needle is used, the procedure is called a core biopsy. When a thin needle is used, the procedure is called a fine-needle aspiration biopsy
bone marrow transplant
A procedure in which a patient receives healthy blood-forming cells (stem cells) to replace their own stem cells that have been destroyed by disease or by the radiation or high doses of anticancer drugs that are given as part of the procedure. The healthy stem cells may come from the bone marrow of the patient or a donor. A bone marrow transplant may be autologous (using a patient’s own stem cells that were collected from the marrow and saved before treatment), allogeneic (using stem cells donated by someone who is not an identical twin), or syngeneic (using stem cells donated by an identical twin). Also called BMT.
A procedure to check for abnormal areas or damage in the bones. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the blood. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner (a special camera that takes pictures of the inside of the body). A bone scan may be used to diagnose bone tumors or cancer that has spread to the bone. It may also be used to help diagnose fractures, bone infections or other bone problems. Also called bone scintigraphy.
A type of radiation therapy in which radioactive material sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters is placed directly into or near a tumor. Also called implant radiation therapy, internal radiation therapy, and radiation brachytherapy.
Any substance that causes cancer.
Cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.
carcinoma in situ
A group of abnormal cells that remain in the place where they first formed. They have not spread. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Also called stage 0 disease.
The use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to try to reduce the risk of, or delay the development or recurrence of cancer.
Treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given by mouth, injection, or infusion, or on the skin, depending on the type and stage of the cancer being treated. It may be given alone or with other treatments, such as surgery, radiation therapy or biologic therapy.
Examination of the inside of the colon using a colonoscope, inserted into the rectum. A colonoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
The condition of having two or more diseases at the same time.
companion diagnostic test
A test used to help match a patient to a specific drug or therapy. For example, a companion diagnostic test may identify whether a patient’s tumor has a specific gene change or biomarker that is targeted by the drug, which helps determine if the patient should receive the drug or not. Companion diagnostic tests can also be used to find out whether serious side effects may occur from treatment or how well treatment is working. Most drugs with a companion diagnostic test are cancer drugs that target specific tumor mutations.
complementary and alternative medicine
Forms of treatment that are used in addition to (complementary) or instead of (alternative) standard treatments. These practices generally are not considered standard medical approaches. Standard treatments go through a long and careful research process to prove they are safe and effective, but less is known about most types of complementary and alternative medicine. Complementary and alternative medicine may include dietary supplements, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, acupuncture, massage therapy, magnet therapy, spiritual healing, and meditation. Also called CAM.
A procedure in which an extremely cold liquid or an instrument called a cryoprobe is used to freeze and destroy abnormal tissue. A cryoprobe is cooled with substances such as liquid nitrogen, liquid nitrous oxide or compressed argon gas. Cryosurgery may be used to treat certain types of cancer and some conditions that may become cancer. Also called cryoablation and cryotherapy.
A procedure that uses a computer linked to an x-ray machine to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. The pictures are taken from different angles and are used to create 3-dimensional (3-D) views of tissues and organs. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the tissues and organs show up more clearly. A CT scan may be used to help diagnose disease, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working. Also called CAT scan, computed tomography scan, computerized axial tomography scan, and computerized tomography.
The length of time after cancer treatment that the patient survives without any signs or symptoms of that cancer. In a clinical trial, measuring the disease-free survival is one way to see how well a new treatment works. Also called DFS, relapse-free survival and RFS.
Cells that look abnormal under a microscope but are not cancer.
The length of time after cancer treatment that the patient remains free of certain complications or events that the treatment was intended to prevent or delay. These events may include the return of the cancer or the onset of certain symptoms, such as bone pain from cancer that has spread to the bone. In a clinical trial, measuring the event-free survival is one way to see how well a new treatment works. Also called EFS.
The first treatment given for a disease. It is often part of a standard set of treatments, such as surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation. When used by itself, first-line therapy is the one accepted as the best treatment. If it doesn’t cure the disease or it causes severe side effects, other treatment may be added or used instead. Also called induction therapy, primary therapy, and primary treatment.
A type of experimental treatment in which foreign genetic material (DNA or RNA) is inserted into a person’s cells to prevent or fight disease. Gene therapy is being studied in the treatment of certain types of cancer.
An inherited increase in the risk of developing a disease. Also called genetic susceptibility.
The process of analyzing cells or tissues to look for genetic changes that may be a sign of a disease or condition, such as cancer. These changes may be a sign that a person has an increased risk of developing a specific disease or condition. Genetic testing may also be done on tumor tissue to help diagnose cancer, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working.
The study of the complete set of DNA (including all of its genes). Almost every cell in a person’s body contains a complete copy of the genome. The genome contains all the information needed for a person to develop and grow. Studying the genome may help researchers understand how genes interact with each other and with the environment and how certain diseases form. This may lead to new ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease. Genomic tests analyze a sample of a cancer tumor to see how active certain genes are.
In cancer, a description of a tumor based on how abnormal the cancer cells and tissue look under a microscope and how quickly the cancer cells are likely to grow and spread. Low-grade cancer cells look more like normal cells and tend to grow and spread more slowly than high-grade cancer cells. Grading systems are different for each type of cancer. They are used to help plan treatment and determine prognosis. Also called histologic grade and tumor grade.
The study of tissues and cells under a microscope.
Treatment that adds, blocks, or removes hormones. For certain conditions (such as diabetes or menopause), hormones are given to adjust low hormone levels. Hormones can cause certain cancers (such as prostate and breast cancer) to grow. To slow or stop the growth of cancer, synthetic hormones or other drugs may be given to block the body’s natural hormones. Sometimes surgery is needed to remove the gland that makes a certain hormone. Also called endocrine therapy, hormonal therapy, and hormone treatment.
An increase in the number of cells in an organ or tissue. These cells appear normal under a microscope. They are not cancer, but may become cancer.
A type of test that makes detailed pictures of areas inside the body. Imaging tests use different forms of energy, such as x-rays (high-energy radiation), ultrasound (high-energy sound waves), radio waves, and radioactive substances. They may be used to help diagnose disease, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working. Examples of imaging tests are computed tomography (CT), ultrasonography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and nuclear medicine tests. Also called imaging procedure.
A complex network of cells, tissues, organs, and the substances they make that helps the body fight infections and other diseases. The immune system includes white blood cells and organs and tissues of the lymph system, such as the thymus, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and bone marrow.
The condition of being protected against an infectious disease. Immunity can be caused by a vaccine, previous infection with the same agent, or by transfer of immune substances from another person or animal.
Describes the ability to decrease the body’s immune system responses.
A type of therapy that uses substances to stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection, and other diseases. Some types of immunotherapy only target certain cells of the immune system, while others affect the immune system in a general way. Types of immunotherapy include cytokines, vaccines, bacillus CalmetteGuerin (BCG), and some monoclonal antibodies.
In its original place. For example, in carcinoma in situ, abnormal cells are
found only in the place where they first formed. They have not spread.
In the body. The opposite of in vitro, which is outside the body or in the laboratory.
A type of medical care that combines conventional (standard) medical treatment with complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies that have been shown to be safe and to work. CAM therapies treat the mind, body, and spirit.
Cancer that has spread beyond the layer of tissue in which it developed and is growing into surrounding, healthy tissues. Also called infiltrating cancer.
A health problem that occurs months or years after a disease is diagnosed or after treatment has ended. Late effects may be caused by cancer or cancer treatment. They may include physical, mental, and social problems and second cancers.
An area of abnormal tissue. A lesion may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
In medicine, describes disease that is limited to a certain part of the body. For example, localized cancer is usually found only in the tissue or organ where it began, and has not spread to nearby lymph nodes or to other parts of the body. Some localized cancers can be completely removed by surgery.
An operation to remove the cancer and some normal tissue around it, but not the breast itself. Some lymph nodes under the arm may be removed for biopsy. Part of the chest wall lining may also be removed if the cancer is near it. Also called breast-conserving surgery, breast-sparing surgery, partial mastectomy, quadrantectomy, and segmental mastectomy.
A small bean-shaped structure that is part of the body’s immune system. Lymph nodes filter substances that travel through the lymphatic fluid, and they contain lymphocytes (white blood cells) that help the body fight infection and disease. There are hundreds of lymph nodes found throughout the body. They are connected to one another by lymph vessels. Clusters of lymph nodes are found in the neck, axilla (underarm), chest, abdomen, and groin. For example, there are about 20-40 lymph nodes in the axilla. Also called lymph gland.
The tissues and organs that produce, store, and carry white blood cells that fight infections and other diseases. This system includes the bone marrow, spleen, thymus, lymph nodes, and lymphatic vessels (a network of thin tubes that carry lymph and white blood cells). Lymphatic vessels branch, like blood vessels, into all the tissues of the body.
A condition in which extra lymph fluid builds up in tissues and causes swelling. It may occur in an arm or leg if lymph vessels are blocked, damaged, or removed by surgery.
Cancerous. Malignant cells can invade and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.
The edge or border of the tissue removed in cancer surgery. The margin is described as negative or clean when the pathologist finds no cancer cells at the edge of the tissue, suggesting that all of the cancer has been removed. The margin is described as positive or involved when the pathologist finds cancer cells at the edge of the tissue, suggesting that all of the cancer has not been removed.
In medicine, a lump in the body. It may be caused by the abnormal growth of cells, a cyst, hormonal changes, or an immune reaction. A mass may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).
To spread from one part of the body to another. When cancer cells metastasize and form secondary tumors, the cells in the metastatic tumor are like those in the original (primary) tumor.
A laboratory test that checks for certain genes, proteins or other molecules in a sample of tissue, blood or other body fluid. Molecular tests also check for certain changes in a gene or chromosome that may cause or affect the chance of developing a specific disease. It may also be used to help plan treatment, find out how well treatment is working, or make a prognosis. Molecular profiling is a test your doctor can order to find out which mutations are present in the cells that make up your tumor. If you have a mutation that is also seen in other cancers, molecular profiling could open the door to other treatment options, including targeted therapies, immunotherapies, and access to clinical trials.
A procedure in which radio waves and a powerful magnet linked to a computer are used to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body. These pictures can show the difference between normal and diseased tissue. MRI makes better images of organs and soft tissue than other scanning techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) or x-ray. MRI is especially useful for imaging the brain, the spine, the soft tissue of joints, and the inside of bones. Also called magnetic resonance imaging, NMRI, and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.
Any change in the DNA sequence of a cell. Mutations may be caused by mistakes during cell division, or they may be caused by exposure to DNA-damaging agents in the environment. Mutations can be harmful, beneficial, or have no effect. If they occur in cells that make eggs or sperm, they can be inherited; if mutations occur in other types of cells, they are not inherited. Certain mutations may lead to cancer or other diseases.
negative test result
A test result that shows the substance or condition the test is supposed to find is not present at all or is present, but in normal amounts. In genetics, a negative test result usually means that a person does not have a mutation (change) in the gene, chromosome, or protein that is being tested. More testing may be needed to make sure a negative test result is correct.
Treatment given as a first step to shrink a tumor before the main treatment, which is usually surgery, is given. Examples of neoadjuvant therapy include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy. It is a type of induction therapy, which is the first treatment given for a disease.
An abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Neoplasms may be benign (not cancer), or malignant (cancer). Also called tumor.
A condition in which there is a lower-than-normal number of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) in the blood.
A gene that is a mutated (changed) form of a gene involved in normal cell growth. Oncogenes may cause the growth of cancer cells. Mutations in genes that become oncogenes can be inherited or caused by being exposed to substances in the environment that cause cancer.
Care given to improve the quality of life of patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease. The goal of palliative care is to prevent or treat as early as possible the symptoms of a disease, side effects caused by treatment of a disease, and psychological, social, and spiritual problems related to a disease or its treatment. Also called comfort care, supportive care, and symptom management.
A nerve problem that causes pain, numbness, tingling, swelling, or muscle weakness in different parts of the body. It usually begins in the hands or feet and gets worse over time. Peripheral neuropathy may be caused by cancer or cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy. It may also be caused by physical injury, infection, toxic substances, or conditions such as diabetes, kidney failure, or malnutrition. Also called neuropathy.
A form of medicine that uses information about a person’s genes, proteins, and environment to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease. In cancer, personalized medicine uses specific information about a person’s tumor to help diagnose, plan treatment, find out how well treatment is working, or make a prognosis. Examples of personalized medicine include using targeted therapies to treat specific types of cancer cells, such as HER2-positive breast cancer cells, or using tumor marker testing to help diagnose cancer. Also called precision medicine.
A procedure in which a small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein, and a scanner is used to make detailed, computerized pictures of areas inside the body where the glucose is taken up. Because cancer cells often take up more glucose than normal cells, the pictures can be used to find cancer cells in the body. Also called positron emission tomography scan.
An inactive substance or other intervention that looks the same as, and is given the same way as, an active drug or treatment being tested. The effects of the active drug or other intervention are compared to the effects of the placebo.
A growth that protrudes from a mucous membrane.
positive test result
A test result that shows that a person has the disease, condition, or biomarker for which the test is being done. In genetics, a positive test result usually means that a person has a mutation (change) in the gene, chromosome, or protein that is being tested. More testing may be needed to make a diagnosis or to make sure a positive test result is correct.
A term used to describe a condition that may (or is likely to) become cancer. Also called premalignant.
A term used to describe the original, or first, tumor in the body. Cancer cells from a primary cancer may spread to other parts of the body and form new, or secondary, tumors. This is called metastasis. These secondary tumors are the same type of cancer as the primary cancer. Also called primary tumor.
The likely outcome or course of a disease; the chance of recovery or recurrence.
The length of time during and after the treatment of a disease that a patient lives with the disease but it does not get worse. In a clinical trial, measuring the progression-free survival is one way to see how well a new treatment works. Also called PFS.
A molecule made up of amino acids. Proteins are needed for the body to function properly. They are the basis of body structures, such as skin and hair, and of other substances such as enzymes, cytokines, and antibodies.
quality of life
The overall enjoyment of life. Many clinical trials assess the effects of cancer and its treatment on the quality of life. These studies measure aspects of an individual’s sense of well-being and ability to carry out activities of daily living. Also called QOL.
The use of high-energy radiation from x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons, and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy), or it may come from radioactive material placed in the body near cancer cells (internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy). Systemic radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance, such as a radiolabeled monoclonal antibody, that travels in the blood to tissues throughout the body. Also called irradiation and radiotherapy.
Surgery that is done to reshape or rebuild (reconstruct) a part of the body changed by previous surgery.
Cancer that has recurred (come back), usually after a period of time during which the cancer could not be detected. The cancer may come back to the same place as the original (primary) tumor or to another place in the body. Also called recurrent cancer.
In medicine, describes a disease or condition that does not respond to treatment.
A treatment plan that specifies the dosage, the schedule, and the duration of treatment.
A process to restore mental and/or physical abilities lost to injury or disease, in order to function in a normal or near-normal way.
The return of a disease or the signs and symptoms of a disease after a period of improvement. Relapse also refers to returning to the use of an addictive substance or behavior, such as cigarette smoking.
A decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body.
An improvement related to treatment.
Checking for disease when there are no symptoms. Since screening may find diseases at an early stage, there may be a better chance of curing the disease. Examples of cancer screening tests are the mammogram (for breast cancer), colonoscopy (for colon cancer), and the Pap test and HPV tests (for cervical cancer). Screening can also include doing a genetic test to check for a person’s risk of developing an inherited disease.
Treatment that is given when initial treatment (first-line therapy) doesn’t work or stops working.
A term used to describe cancer that has spread (metastasized) from the place where it first started to another part of the body. Secondary cancers are the same type of cancer as the original (primary) cancer. For example, cancer cells may spread from the breast (primary cancer) to form new tumors in the lung (secondary cancer). The cancer cells in the lung are just like the ones in the breast. Also called secondary tumor.
The extent of a cancer in the body. Staging is usually based on the size of the tumor, whether lymph nodes contain cancer, and whether the cancer has spread from the original site to other parts of the body.
standard of care
Treatment that is accepted by medical experts as a proper treatment for a certain type of disease and that is widely used by health care professionals. Also called best practice, standard medical care, and standard therapy.
In cancer, survivorship focuses on the health and life of a person with cancer post treatment until the end of life. It covers the physical, psychosocial, and economic issues of cancer, beyond the diagnosis and treatment phases. Survivorship includes issues related to the ability to get health care and follow-up treatment, late effects of treatment, second cancers, and quality of life.
survivorship care plan
A detailed plan given to a patient after treatment ends, that contains a summary of the patient’s treatment, along with recommendations for follow-up care. In cancer, the plan is based on the type of cancer and the treatment the patient received. A survivorship care plan may include schedules for physical exams and medical tests to see if the cancer has come back or spread to other parts of the body. Getting follow-up care also helps check for health problems that may occur months or years after treatment ends, including other types of cancer. A survivorship care plan may also include information to help meet the emotional, social, legal, and financial needs of the patient. It may include referrals to specialists and recommendations for a healthy lifestyle, such as changes in diet and exercise and quitting smoking. Also called follow-up care plan.
Treatment using substances that travel through the bloodstream, reaching and affecting cells all over the body.
A type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific types of cancer cells with less harm to normal cells. Some targeted therapies block the action of certain enzymes, proteins, or other molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. Other types of targeted therapies help the immune system kill cancer cells or deliver toxic substances directly to cancer cells and kill them. Targeted therapy may have fewer side effects than other types of cancer treatment. Most targeted therapies are either small molecule drugs or monoclonal antibodies.
The extent to which something is poisonous or harmful.
A detailed summary of a patient’s disease, the type of treatment the patient received, and any side effects or other problems caused by treatment. It usually includes results of laboratory tests (such as pathology reports and biomarker tests) and imaging tests (such as x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs), and whether a patient took part in a clinical trial. A treatment summary may be used to help plan follow-up care after treatment for a disease, such as cancer.
A substance found in tissue or blood or other body fluids that may be a sign of cancer or certain benign (noncancer) conditions. Most tumor markers are made by both normal cells and cancer cells, but they are made in larger amounts by cancer cells. A tumor marker may help to diagnose cancer, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working or if cancer has come back. Examples of tumor markers include CA-125 (in ovarian cancer), CA 15-3 (in breast cancer), CEA (in colon cancer), and PSA (in prostate cancer).
gene A type of gene that makes a protein called a tumor suppressor protein that helps control cell growth. Mutations (changes in DNA) in tumor suppressor genes may lead to cancer. Also called antioncogene.
A procedure that uses high-energy sound waves to look at tissues and organs inside the body. The sound waves make echoes that form pictures of the tissues and organs on a computer screen (sonogram). Ultrasound may be used to help diagnose diseases, such as cancer. It may also be used during pregnancy to check the fetus (unborn baby) and during medical procedures, such as biopsies. Also called ultrasonography or sonogram.
white blood cell
A type of blood cell that is made in the bone marrow and found in the blood and lymph tissue. White blood cells are part of the body’s immune system. They help the body fight infection and other diseases. Types of white blood cells are granulocytes (neutrophils, eosinophils, and basophils), monocytes, and lymphocytes (T cells and B cells). Checking the number of white blood cells in the blood is usually part of a complete blood cell (CBC) test. It may be used to look for conditions such as infection, inflammation, allergies, and leukemia. Also called leukocyte and WBC.
A type of radiation used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other diseases. In low doses, x-rays are used to diagnose diseases by making pictures of the inside of the body. In high doses, x-rays are used to treat cancer.