Glossary of Cancer Terms
Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer introduces you to a new and unusual vocabulary. To better understand your diagnosis and particiapte in making treatment decisions, you will need to become familiar with this new language.
Click on the letters below to browse a glossary of cancer related terms and their definitions, which has been adapted from the National Cancer Institute website. (http://www.cancer.gov)
(* indicates definitions from other sites)
In medicine, the removal or destruction of a body part or tissue or its function. Ablation may be performed by surgery, hormones, drugs, radiofrequency, heat, or other methods.
Another treatment used together with the primary treatment. Its purpose is to assist the primary treatment. Also called adjunctive therapy.
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.
Cancer that has spread to other places in the body.
Blood vessel formation. Tumor angiogenesis is the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow. This is caused by the release of chemicals by the tumor.
A type of cell death in which a series of molecular steps in a cell leads to its death. This is the body’s normal way of getting rid of unneeded or abnormal cells. The process of apoptosis may be blocked in cancer cells. Also called programmed cell death.
Abnormal buildup of fluid in the abdomen that may cause swelling. In late-stage cancer, tumor cells may be found in the fluid in the abdomen. Ascites also occurs in patients with liver disease.
Treatment to boost or restore the ability of the immune system to fight cancer, infections, and other diseases. Also used to lessen certain side effects that may be caused by some cancer treatments. Agents used in biological therapy include monoclonal antibodies, growth factors, and vaccines. These agents may also have a direct antitumor effect. Also called biological response modifier therapy, biotherapy, BRM therapy, and immunotherapy.
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. Also called molecular marker and signature molecule.
A drug or substance used to treat hypercalcemia (abnormally high blood calcium) and bone pain caused by some types of cancer. Forms of bisphosphonates are also used to treat osteoporosis and for bone imaging. Bisphosphonates inhibit a type of bone cell that breaks down bone. Also called diphosphonate.
A network of blood vessels with closely spaced cells that makes it difficult for potentially toxic substances (such as anticancer drugs) to penetrate the blood vessel walls and enter the brain. Also called BBB.
A technique to create images of bones on a computer screen or on film. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into a blood vessel and travels through the bloodstream; it collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.
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 CAM. CAM may include dietary supplements, megadose vitamins, herbal preparations, special teas, acupuncture, massage therapy, magnet therapy, spiritual healing and meditation.
Treatment with drugs that kill cancer cells.
A series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body taken from different angles. The pictures are created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. Also called CAT scan, computed tomography scan, computerized axial tomography scan.
The length of time after treatment for a specific disease during which a patient survives with no sign of the disease. Disease-free survival may be used in a clinical study or trial to help measure how well a new treatment works. Also called DFS and disease-free survival time.
An abnormal collection of fluid in hollow spaces or between tissues of the body. For example, a pleural effusion is a collection of fluid between the two layers of membrane covering the lungs.
A substance made by the body that functions to regulate cell division and cell survival. Some growth factors are also produced in the laboratory and used in biological therapy.
A condition marked by pain, swelling, numbness, tingling, or redness of the hands or feet. It sometimes occurs as a side effect of certain anticancer drugs. Also called palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia.
A protein involved in normal cell growth. It is found on some types of cancer cells, including breast and ovarian. Cancer cells removed from the body may be tested for the presence of HER2/neu to help decide the best type of treatment. HER2/neu is a type of receptor tyrosine kinase. Also called c-erbB-2, human EGF receptor 2, and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2.
Treatment that adds, blocks, or removes hormones. For certain conditions (such as diabetes or menopause), hormones are given to adjust low hormone levels. To slow or stop the growth of certain cancers (such as prostate and breast 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 therapy.
Having to do with metastasis, which is the spread of cancer from the primary site (place where it started) to other places in the body.
A procedure in which radio waves and a powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body. These pictures can show the difference between normal and diseased tissue. Magnetic resonance imaging makes better images of organs and soft tissue than other scanning techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) or x-ray. Magnetic resonance imaging is especially useful for imaging the brain, the spine, the soft tissue of joints, and the inside of bones. Also called MRI, NMRI, and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.
The time from either diagnosis or treatment at which half of the patients with a given disease are found to be, or expected to be, still alive. In a clinical trial, median survival time is one way to measure how effective a treatment is. Also called median overall survival and median survival.
A doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer using chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, biological therapy, and targeted therapy. A medical oncologist is often the main care provider for someone who has cancer. A medical oncologist also gives supportive care and may coordinate the treatments given by other specialists.
The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. A tumor formed by cells that have spread is called a “metastatic tumor” or a “metastasis.”
A type of protein made in the laboratory that can locate and bind to substances in the body, including tumor cells. There are many kinds of monoclonal antibodies. Each monoclonal antibody is made to find one substance. Monoclonal antibodies are being used to treat some types of cancer and are being studied in the treatment of other types. They can be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive materials directly to a tumor.
Most doctors avoid using the word "cure" because it implies that your cancer is gone forever. The best a doctor can do is say that they can find no signs of cancer in your body at this time. This is most often stated as "No evidence of disease." Your doctor may continue to follow you closely for many years and do tests to watch for any signs of cancer recurrence. Be aware that it is still possible for cancer to come back even after you have been cancer-free for 5 years or more.
* American Cancer Society: When Your Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence.
A drug that decreases fever, swelling, pain, and redness.
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. Neuropathy may be caused by physical injury, infection, toxic substances, disease (such as cancer, diabetes, kidney failure, or malnutrition), or drugs, including anticancer drugs. Also called peripheral neuropathy.
Cancer patients taking certain bone drugs called bisphosphonates may develop a severe form of bone damage in the jaw; this condition disrupts the blood supply to the bone, causing tiny breaks that can eventually lead to a total collapse of the bone.
* American Cancer Society
Surgery to remove one or both ovaries.
A substance used to treat moderate to severe pain. Opioids are like opiates, such as morphine and codeine, but are not made from opium. Opioids bind to opioid receptors in the central nervous system. Opioids used to be called narcotics. An opioid is a type of alkaloid.
Metastatic bone lesions can be described as osteolytic, osteoblastic and mixed. The osteolytic lesions are most common where the destructive processes outstrip the laying down of new bone. Osteoblastic lesions result from new bone growth that is stimulated by the tumor. Microscopically, most lesions are mixed.
Surgery, radiation therapy, or a drug treatment to stop the functioning of the ovaries. Also called ovarian suppression.
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 substance that blocks an enzyme involved in many functions of the cell, including the repair of DNA damage. DNA damage may be caused by normal cell actions, UV light, some anticancer drugs, and radiation used to treat cancer. It may cause cancer cells to die. It is a type of targeted therapy. Also called poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase inhibitor.
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 used. Because cancer cells often use more glucose than normal cells, the pictures can be used to find cancer cells in the body. Also called positron emission tomography scan.
The length of time during and after treatment in which a patient is living with a disease that does not get worse. Progression-free survival may be used in a clinical study or trial to help find out how well a new treatment works. Also called PFS.
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). 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.
A procedure that uses radio waves to heat and destroy abnormal cells. The radio waves travel through electrodes (small devices that carry electricity). Radiofrequency ablation may be used to treat cancer and other conditions.
The stage describes the extent of the cancer in the body. It is based on whether the cancer is invasive or non-invasive, the size of the tumor, how many lymph nodes are involved, and if it has spread to other parts of the body. The stage of a cancer is one of the most important factors in determining prognosis and treatment options.
* American Cancer Society
Performing exams and tests to learn the extent of the cancer within the body, especially whether the disease has spread from the original site to other parts of the body. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan the best treatment.
A type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances, such as monoclonal antibodies, to identify and attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapy may have fewer side effects than other types of cancer treatments.
Describes breast cancer cells that do not have estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, or large amounts of HER2/neu protein. Also called ER-PR-HER2/neu- and TNBC.
A substance that may be found in tumor tissue or released from a tumor into the blood or other body fluids. A high level of a tumor marker may mean that a certain type of cancer is in the body. Examples of tumor markers include CA 125 (in ovarian cancer), CA 15-3 (in breast cancer), CEA (in ovarian, lung, breast, pancreas, and gastrointestinal tract cancers), and PSA (in prostate cancer).
A substance made by cells that stimulates new blood vessel formation. Also called vascular endothelial growth factor.