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Glossary Of Cancer Terms


Following is a list of cancer terms you are likely to encounter. (If a word you are looking for is not here, see the National Cancer Institute Glossary of over 6,000 terms: offsite link). 

Acute: Refers to symptoms that start and worsen quickly but do not last over a long period of time

Benign: Refers to a tumor that is not cancerous. The tumor does not usually invade nearby tissue or spread to other parts of the body.

Biopsy: The removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. Other tests can suggest that cancer is present, but only a biopsy can make a definite diagnosis. To learn more, see Biopsy.

Bone marrow: The soft, spongy tissue found in the center of large bones where blood cells are formed

Cancer: A group of more than 100 different diseases that can begin almost anywhere in the body. The diseases are characterized by abnormal cell growth and the ability to invade nearby tissues. 

Carcinoma: Cancer that starts in skin or tissues that line the inside or cover the outside of internal organs

Cells: The basic units that make up the human body

Chronic: Refers to a disease or condition that persists or progresses, often slowly, over a long period of time

Imaging test: A procedure that creates pictures of internal body parts, tissues, or organs to make a diagnosis, plan treatment, check whether treatment is working, or observe a disease over time

Informed consent: Informed consent refers the information you need to know before agreeing to a treatment or procedure.To give informed consent, you need to know: 

  • Your diagnosis, if known.
  • The nature and purpose of a proposed treatment or procedure.
  • The risks and benefits of a proposed treatment or procedure.
  • Alternatives (regardless of their cost or the extent to which the treatment options are covered by health insurance).
  • The risks and benefits of the alternative treatment or procedure.
  • The risks and benefits of not receiving or undergoing a treatment or procedure.

Your doctor is the usual source of this information. However, feel free to do additional research to the extent you feel it is necessary. These days, research is easy. You can do it on the internet. Click here for tips about doing medical research, tips about fraud to watch out for, and about services that will do the research for you if needed.

In situ: In place. Refers to cancer that has not spread to nearby tissue (also called non-invasive cancer).

Invasive cancer: Cancer that has spread outside the layer of tissue in which it started and has the potential to grow into other tissues or parts of the body (also called infiltrating cancer)

Laboratory test: A procedure that evaluates a sample of blood, urine, or other substance from the body to make a diagnosis, plan treatment, check whether treatment is working, or observe a disease over time

Localized cancer: Cancer that is confined to the area where it started and has not spread to other parts of the body

Lymph nodes:  (Also known as a lymph gland): A small rounded or bean-shaped mass of lymphatic tissue. Lymph nodes are located in many places on the lymphatic system throughout the body. Lymph nodes filter lymphatic fluid. Lymph nodes are critical to the immune system and fighting infection.

Lymphoma: A cancer of the lymph system. Lymphoma begins when cells in the lymph system change and grow uncontrollably and may form a tumor.

Malignant: A tumor that is cancerous. It may invade nearby healthy tissue or spread to other parts of the body.

Mass: A lump in the body

Metastasis: (meh-TAS-tuh-sis). Sometimes cancer cells break away from a tumor and spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or bloodstream. The cells can settle in other places in the body and form new tumors. This is called metastasis. Even when cancer has spread to a new location in the body, it is still named after the part of the body where it started. 

Oncologist: A doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer. The four main types of oncologists are medical, surgical, radiation, gynecologic, and pediatric oncologists.

Oncology: The study of cancer

Pathologist: A doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease

Polyp: A growth of normal tissue that usually sticks out from the lining of an organ, such as the colon

Precancerous: Refers to cells that have the potential to become cancerous. Also called pre-malignant.

Predisposition: A tendency to develop a disease that can be triggered under certain conditions. Although a predisposition to cancer increases a person's risk of developing cancer, it is not certain that the person will develop it. 

Primary cancer: The area in the body where a cancer started

Prognosis: Chance of recovery; a prediction of the outcome of a disease. A prognosis is based on statistics and does not predict what will happen to any particular individual. 

Sarcoma: A cancer that develops in the tissues that support and connect the body. 

Screening: The process of checking whether a person has a disease or has an increased chance of developing a disease when there are no symptoms

Secondary cancer: Describes either a new primary cancer (a different type of cancer) that develops after treatment for the first type of cancer, or cancer that has spread to other parts of the body from the place where it started (see metastasis, above)

Stage: A way of describing cancer, such as where it is located, whether or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting the functions of other organs in the body. 

Tumor: A mass formed when normal cells begin to change and grow uncontrollably. A tumor can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body).

NOTE: For a glossary of words relating to:

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