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Common Cancer Terms

The following list includes words you may hear from your doctor or care team related to a cancer diagnosis.

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.

Biological therapy (also known as immunotherapy): A type of cancer treatment that works with the body’s own immune system to:

  • Stop or slow the growth of cancer cells
  • Help the immune system destroy cancer cells
  • Prevent cancer from spreading (metastasizing) to other parts of the body
  • Control side effects from other treatments

Just like other cancer treatments, biological therapy may also cause side effects. These may include: rashes or swelling where the treatment is injected; flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, fatigue, bone pain and muscle aches; and lowered blood pressure.

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.

Chemotherapy: Powerful drugs used to attach and destroy cancer cells directly within the body. Patients may experience side effects during treatment, which varies for each person, depending on the type of drug(s) given and the dosage(s) used during treatment. Side effects may include: hair loss, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and mouth sores. Chemotherapy drugs may be given alone or in different combinations. They are given in cycles (a treatment period followed by days or weeks of recovery) and most patients find side effects improve during the time period between treatments.

Hormonal therapy: Drugs used to block the actions of certain hormones in the body which can cause cancer cells to grow. For example, testosterone (a male sex hormone) stimulates prostate cancer growth and estrogen (a female sex hormone) encourages the growth of certain types of breast cancer.

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

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

Medical oncologists: Doctors who have special training in treating people with cancer. A medical oncologist chooses each patient’s treatment based on the type of cancer the patient has, how far the cancer has spread and the treatments a patient has already tried.

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

Prognosis: Chance of recovery; a prediction of the outcome of a disease.

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

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). Also called a nodule or mass.


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