The ABCs of Cancer Testing: Decoding Common Abbreviations

Few things are more nerve-wracking than undergoing a test for cancer, and trying to learn the medical terms that go along with testing doesn't make it any easier. The shorthand your medical team uses everyday can sound like a whole different language if you're dealing with these procedures for the first time. If you're not fluent in medical abbreviations quite yet, this list of common acronyms and their meanings can help you get in the know so you can communicate more effectively with your care team.

BI-RADS – Short for Breast Imaging Reporting and Data System, BI-RADS is a system doctors use to divide mammogram results into standard, numbered categories. By sorting the results into these categories, doctors all over the country can describe what they find on a mammogram using the same words and terms. This makes accurately communicating about these test results and following up after the tests much easier.

CT/CAT scan – A CT or CAT scan is shorthand for a computed tomography scan. This type of scan uses a computer to make a complex picture of the inside of your body that shows your bones, organs, and soft tissue all at the same time. A CT scan is useful because it produces a clearer picture than x-rays can, and doctors can enlarge the image to better see and diagnose potential cancers.

CBC – A CBC, or complete blood count, is a common lab test that measures the quantities of certain cells within your blood. These cells – which include red blood cells (sometimes abbreviated "RBC" on test reports), white blood cells ("WBC"), and platelets – can be affected by cancer or treatment. By measuring the amounts of each in the bloodstream, doctors can tell much about what's happening inside your body.

MRI – Like a CT scan (see above), an MRI or magnetic resonance imaging scan creates a complex picture of the inside of the body. An MRI is different from a CT scan, however, because it allows doctors to see a particular spot inside the body from multiple angles or viewpoints. It can also create images of soft tissues inside the body that other scans can't, and it is particularly useful for finding certain types of cancers or for seeing if a cancer has spread.

PSA or PSA Test – The acronym PSA stands for prostate-specific antigen, which is a scientific name for a substance made by a man's prostate gland. A small amount is normally found in the blood, but if the amount of PSA in the blood goes up, the chances that prostate cancer is present go up, too. The PSA blood test is used to check healthy men for signs of prostate cancer, and to check for recurrence of the disease in men who have already been treated.

The medical terms you hear during diagnosis and treatment may be unfamiliar or confusing, but it's important to understand what's going on with your body so you can make the best possible decisions about your health. Ask your treatment team to explain terms you don’t understand. If you want to learn more about a specific word or term, try the American Cancer Society's online cancer glossary.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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