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Common terminology surrounding cancer

  • 2 min to read
Common terminology surrounding cancer

Cancer affects tens of millions of people across the globe every year. Data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer indicates that roughly 19 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2020.

Though people confronting cancer recurrence might be familiar with various terms, the 19 million people with no such personal history who are diagnosed each year may find discussions with their cancer care teams a little confusing. A lack of familiarity with cancer terminology may be at the root of such confusion.

The following are some terms, courtesy of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, that are often used by cancer care teams during discussions with their patients:

Acute. Acute is not specific to cancer, as it is often used to describe symptoms patients with various illnesses may experience. ASCO® notes that acute refers to symptoms that start and worsen quickly but do not last over a long period of time.

Biopsy. A biopsy is a test during which a small amount of tissue is removed for examination under a microscope. ASCO® notes that a biopsy is the only test that can make a definitive diagnosis of cancer.

Cancer. Cancer is an umbrella term used to describe more than 100 different diseases, all of which are characterized by abnormal cell growth and the ability to invade nearby tissues.

Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that involves the use of drugs to kill cancer cells.

Clinical trial. Clinical trials are studies that test new treatments and/or prevention methods to determine if they are safe, effective and potentially better than current standards of care. Some cancer patients may be eligible to take part in clinical trials, and they can discuss the pros and cons of doing so with their cancer care teams.

Complementary medicine. This refers to a diverse group of treatments, techniques and products that are used in addition to standard cancer treatments. Patients can discuss the various types of complementary therapies available to them with their cancer care teams.

Hormone therapy. This treatment removes, blocks or adds hormones to destroy or slow the growth of cancer cells. It is sometimes referred to as hormonal therapy or endocrine therapy.

Imaging test. An imaging test creates pictures of internal body parts, tissues or organs. These tests may be ordered to make a diagnosis, develop a course of treatment or to determine if treatment is working.

Immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that aims to improve the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. Sometimes called biologic therapy, immunotherapy employs materials made by the body or in a lab to improve, target or restore immune system function.

In situ. Cancer is described as “in situ” when it has not spread to nearby tissue. This is also called non-invasive cancer.

Invasive cancer. This is used to describe cancer that has spread outside the layer of tissue in which it started. Invasive cancer has the potential to grow into other tissues or parts of the body.

Late effects. Late effects refers to side effects that occur months or years after a cancer diagnosis. These may develop due to related treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy or surgery.

Metastasis. The spread of cancer from the place where it began to other parts of the body.

Mortality rate. The number of deaths in a particular population during a specific time.

Palliative care. This refers to any form of treatment that concentrates on reducing a patient’s symptoms or treatment of side effects. Palliative care aims to improve patients’ quality of life and support patients and their families.

Polyp. A growth of normal tissue that usually sticks out from the lining of an organ.

Precancerous. This refers to cells that have the potential to become cancerous.

Relative survival. The amount of time after treatment that a person with cancer lives, excluding all other causes of death but cancer.

Remission. The disappearance of the signs and symptoms of cancer but not necessarily the entire disease. Remission may be temporary or permanent.

Staging. 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.