Cancer Glossary

There are several terms that are used in context of cancer. Some of these include:

Terms related to cancer types

  • Tumor or tumour – this means any abnormal swelling, lump or mass.
  • Neoplasm – this is the medical term for cancer and is synonymous with it.
  • Neoplasm may be further spoken of as a malignant neoplasm or cancer.
  • Benign neoplasm or benign tumor.
  • An invasive tumor is one that signifies the invasiveness of the cancer.
  • A non-invasive tumor is one that is not yet invasive but has the potential to turn aggressive and invade other organs.
  • Atypia, dysplasia and carcinoma in situ – this is a form of non invasive tumors where the cells begin to show abnormality under the microscope.
  • Carcinoma – this is a type of cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.
  • Sarcoma – this type of cancer begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels and other supportive tissues.
  • Leukemia – this type of cancer starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow leading to production of large numbers of abnormal blood cells - this is called blood cancer is common parlance.
  • Lymphoma and myeloma – these are cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system.

Terms related to diagnosis and pathology of cancer

  • Screening – this refers to a test that is done routinely at fixed age and intervals among healthy persons to detect tumors before they become apparent. A good example of a screening test is a mammogram to detect breast cancer. These tests are usually minimally painful or invasive to increase their acceptability.
  • Biopsy – this is a laboratory test that involves removal of a sample of tissues from a cancer or tumor to check the cells under the microscope for abnormality. There are several types of biopsy procedures like fine needle aspiration, core biopsy or excision biopsy.
  • Grade of the tumor – This is usually defined as the degree of resemblance of the tumor to the surrounding benign tissue. A low grade tumor resembles the surrounding normal tissues closely while a high grade tumor is very different from surrounding tissues. An intermediate grade lies somewhere in between.
  • Stage of cancer – This is usually a number (usually between 0 to 4) that describe the degree of invasion of the body by the tumor. A grade 4 cancer is an advanced cancer that has spread to distant organs and is less amenable to treatment.
  • Metastasis – Spread of tumors to distant sites away from the original site of the cancer.
  • Transformation of the tumor – This refers to change of a low grade tumor to a high grade tumor.
  • Aggressive tumor – a minimally aggressive tumor spreads slowly whereas an aggressive tumor tends to spread faster.
  • Oncologist – a Specialist who deals with cancer and its treatment.
  • An oncopatholgist – a pathologist who helps in diagnosis and detection of cancers.

Terms related to treatment of cancer

  • Remission – when a cancer patient shows no sign of cancer after therapy, he or she is said to be in remission. They are kept under a close watch and system of monitoring and follow up to detect a relapse.
  • Cure – a cure is considered in a cancer patient if 95% of treated patients live a certain period of time after the date of their diagnosis of cancer. For Hodgkin’s lymphoma it is 10 years, whereas for Burkitt's lymphoma this period is 1 year.
  • Recurrence – if the cancer returns at the site of the original tumor after surgery or treatment, it is called a recurrence.
  • Median survival time – this is a period of time measured in months or years over which at least 50% of the cancer patients are expected to be alive.
  • Overall survival – this is statistical term that determines the maximum survivability with a cancer.
  • Prognosis – this is the possible outcome of a cancer. It is usually expressed as a probability of survival five years after diagnosis. It can also be expressed as the number of years when 50% of the patients are still alive. A graphical analysis by the Kaplan-Meier curve is used to determine the prognosis.
  • Protocol – This refers to the specific chemotherapy plan that is used.
  • Chemotherapy – this refers to the treatment of cancer using anti-cancer drugs.
  • Cycle - chemotherapy drugs are often given in the same order on the same schedule repeatedly. These are called cycles of chemotherapy.
  • Radiation therapy – this treatment refers to therapy with high energy beams or rays and radiation to kill the cancer cells.
  • Adjuvant therapy – this is usually given with chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This is given after surgery to kill the remaining cancer cells.
  • Neo-adjuvant therapy – This is similar to adjuvant therapy used before surgery to reduce the burden of cancer cells.
  • Palliative therapy – This refers to symptomatic relief that is provided in patients with advanced cancers.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 23, 2018



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