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Glossary of Cancer and Treatment Terms

Benign: A tumor or cells that are not cancerous.

Biological therapy: A treatment that works with your body’s immune system to help it fight cancer cells or to control side effects from other cancer treatments.

Biopsy: A biopsy is a minor surgery to get body fluid or small pieces of body tissue to look at under a microscope to see if there are cancer cells. The removed cells or tissues are usually examined by a pathologist. Biopsies can include 1) incisional biopsies, in which only a sample of tissue is removed; 2) an excisional biopsy, in which an entire lump or suspicious area is removed; and 3) needle biopsies, in which a sample of tissue or fluid is removed with a needle.

Bone marrow: The soft, sponge-like tissue in the center of most bones. Bone marrow makes all kinds of blood cells: white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets (clotting cells).

Bone marrow transplant: Bone marrow transplants are often used to treat blood cancers. Bone marrow is a spongy tissue found inside bones. For a bone marrow transplant, cells are taken from the bone marrow of a donor and put inside a patient to make new blood cells.

Cancer: A disease in which cells grow out of control. Cancer cells can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer registry: Information is collected about cancer patients and treatments from doctors and hospitals to help understand and track cancer across the country. See National Program of Cancer Registries.

Cancer survivor: A person who has been diagnosed with cancer, from the time of diagnosis until the end of life.

Carcinogen: A substance or agent that causes cancer.

Carcinoma: A cancer that starts in the skin or the tissues that line internal organs.

Caregiver: A person who provides support and help to a cancer survivor.

Caregiver assessment: A tool that identifies the needs, resources, and strengths to help care for caregivers and cancer patients from the point of view of the caregiver. Doctors can recommend community resources, professional services, and agencies that may help.

Cell: The basic unit that makes up the human body. Cells contain genetic information.

Chemotherapy: Special medicines used to shrink or kill cancer cells. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given in your veins, or sometimes both.

Chronic disease: A disease that a person has for a long period of time. Cancer can be a chronic disease.

Clinical trials: Studies that research drugs, medical plans, treatments, or devices to see if they are safe and effective for people who have cancer or other illnesses. Clinical trials can also study whether interventions that change health behaviors, such as diet, are effective.

Complementary and alternative medicine: Medicines and health practices that are not standard cancer treatments. Meditation, yoga, and supplements like vitamins and herbs are some examples. Many kinds of complementary and alternative medicine have not been tested scientifically, so information is not available about their safety and effectiveness. Before starting any kind of complementary or alternative medicine, patients should talk to a doctor about their safety and effectiveness.

Coordinated care: A person or plan to organize patient care activities among doctors, social workers, caregivers, and other people who help cancer patients. Coordinated care involves pulling together health professionals, resources, and caregivers to work with the patient to manage all of a patient’s treatment and follow-up care and make sure they receive the services they need.

Diagnosis: A person is found to have a disease or condition, such as cancer.

DNA: The chemicals that make up the genes in cells. Some cancers can be carried and passed along by families through their DNA.

Emotional Distress: Feelings of depression, fear, and anxiety that can happen after being diagnosed with cancer.

False positive: A test result that indicates that a person may have cancer when he or she does not.

Family history: A record of the current and past medical conditions of a person’s parents, brothers, sisters, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members to help understand a person’s risk of cancer. Knowing a person’s family history can help show a pattern of certain diseases that may be inherited or run in the family.

Fertility preservation: Certain cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, may cause infertility. Fertility preservation is a way of helping a person keep his or her ability to have children, before he or she begins cancer treatment. Examples of fertility preservation procedures include banking a man’s sperm, freezing a woman’s egg, in vitro fertilization with embryo freezing, and certain types of surgery.

Follow-up care: Getting routine checkups and other cancer screenings after cancer treatment ends. Follow-up care can help find new or returning cancers early and look for side effects of cancer treatment.

Formal caregivers: People who are trained and paid to provide care, such as nurses, therapists, social workers, and home health aides. Formal caregivers may work for home care agencies, community or social service agencies, or for-profit providers.

Genes: The instructions that tell cells how to behave and what type of cells to become. Genes are responsible for traits passed along in families, like eye color, height, and even cancer risk.

Genetics: The study of genes and how they affect the human body.

Hormonal therapy: A treatment that blocks cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow.

Imaging test: Different tests that create images of parts of the body, such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET).

Immune system: The body’s natural defense system against getting an infection and disease. White blood cells are the main part of your immune system that fight infections.

Infection: When germs enter a person’s body and multiply, causing disease. The germs may be bacteria, viruses, yeast, or fungi. When the body’s natural defense system is strong, it can often fight the germs and prevent infection. Some cancer treatments can weaken the natural defense system.

Informal caregivers: People who provide unpaid care for cancer patients and often are family members, friends, and neighbors.

Late effect: 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, psychosocial problems, and second cancers.

Long-term side effect: A problem that is caused by a disease or treatment of a disease and may continue for months or years after treatment. Some long-term side effects of cancer treatment vary for patients and can include heart, lung, kidney, or gastrointestinal tract problems; pain, numbness, tingling, loss of feeling, or heat or cold sensitivity in the hands or feet; fatigue; hearing loss; cataracts; and dry eyes or dry mouth.

Malignant: A tumor or cells that are cancerous.

Metastasis: The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another, through the lymph system or bloodstream. A tumor formed by cells that have spread is called a “metastatic tumor” or a “metastasis.” The metastatic tumor contains cells that are like those in the original (primary) tumor.

Mutation: A change in the DNA of a cell. Most mutations do not cause cancer, though some are linked to higher risk for cancer.

Neutropenia: When the body has very low levels of certain white blood cells called neutrophils (infection-fighting white blood cells). It is a common side effect of chemotherapy treatment.

Oncology: The branch of medicine that focuses on the development, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. A medical doctor who manages a person’s care and treatment after a cancer diagnosis is called an oncologist.

Patient navigator: A person who guides a cancer patient through tests, treatment, and follow-up care.

Primary cancer: The original cancer that develops in one place in the body.

Psychologist: An expert or specialist in psychology (the study of the mind and behavior).

Psychosocial factors: A person’s thoughts, emotions, behaviors, spirituality, and social interactions. Psychosocial factors contribute to the way people view themselves and the world around them and the way they view life situations and events. These factors are also related to well-being and how people feel about themselves and others in their life.

Quality of life: A cancer survivor’s overall enjoyment of life, including his or her sense of well-being and the physical, mental, emotional, and social ability to do the things he or she wants to do.

Radiation therapy: Using high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to kill cancer cells.

Radiologist: Doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases and injuries using medical imaging techniques, such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear medicine, positron emission tomography (PET), and ultrasound.

Recurrence: When a cancer comes back in the same place after treatment or after remission.

Remission: When the cancer has gotten smaller, is gone, or is under control. Partial remission means that the cancer is still there, but the tumor is smaller or there is less cancer throughout the body. Complete remission means doctors cannot find any signs of cancer in the body.

Risk factor: Something that is linked with a person’s chance of getting a disease. A risk factor is not necessarily a causal factor. These can include 1) behaviors such as smoking or exercise; 2) demographic characteristics such as sex, age, education, and income; 3) genetics; and 4) geographic location.

Sarcoma: A cancer that develops in connective tissue like muscle or fat.

Screening: Checking for cancer before symptoms appear. Screening may find diseases at an early stage, when there may be a better chance of treatment. Examples of cancer screening tests include mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colorectal cancer, and the Pap test and HPV test for cervical cancer.

Screening test: A test to look for cancer before symptoms appear.

Second opinion: When a person gets an opinion from more than one doctor or specialist.

Secondary cancer: A cancer that has spread to another part of the body from the area where it started. See metastasis.

Side effects: Unwanted reactions or effects from medication or therapy. In chemotherapy, common side effects include hair loss and nausea. Having a lowered number of white blood cells is also a side effect of chemotherapy treatment.

Social worker: Social workers help individuals, families, and groups as part of a team of professionals who provide care to patients. Social workers can help cancer patients with financial and family problems, emotional support, health insurance questions, or understanding the medical system.

Stage: A way to describe cancer, usually on the basis of the size of the tumor, whether lymph nodes contain cancer, and whether it has spread to other organs or tissues in the body.

Stem cell transplant: Stem cell transplants may be done after chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Stem cells are cells that live in the bone marrow and make new blood cells. Stem cell transplants take stem cells from the blood of a donor and put them into a cancer patient after treatment.

Support network: A group of people who help a cancer survivor like caregivers, friends, family members, doctors, and therapists.

Surgeon: A doctor who performs surgeries.

Surgery: Medical treatment to remove damaged or diseased parts of the body, such as the removal of tissue with cancer cells.

Surveillance (medical): Closely watching a patient’s condition, but not treating it unless there are changes in test results. Surveillance is also used to find early signs that a disease has come back. Surveillance can be used to monitor a person’s health by doing certain tests on a regular schedule. It may be done for individuals who are at increased risk of cancer, patients in early stages of cancer, or survivors who are in remission. The term also is used in the field of epidemiology to describe the continuous collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.

Survivor: See cancer survivor.

Survivorship care plan: A complete record of a cancer patient’s cancer history, treatments given, the need for future checkups and cancer tests, possible long-term effects of the treatment, and ideas for staying healthy. The plan needs to identify the health care providers that were responsible for care.

Symptom: A sign of illness in the body. There are some symptoms that are associated different types of cancer. For example, breast cancer, gynecologic cancers, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer have different symptoms.

Tumor: A tumor is an abnormal growth of body tissue. Tumors can be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Cancerous tumors can have uncontrolled growth and may spread to other parts of the body. Noncancerous tumors do not grow or spread.