Words to describe cancer and its treatment

Here are a few words about cancer that your family probably will need to know. You may want to explain them in a family meeting, so that all the children (and adults) know what you mean when you use these words. Be sure to check to find out if there are other words they’ve heard that they don’t understand. Also tell them who they should ask if they hear other words they don’t know. Older children can look up some of the words for themselves, but some of the more specialized medical terms may still be hard to understand.

Benign (be-NINE): not cancer (see also cancer, malignant).

Biopsy (BY-op-see): a procedure that removes a small piece of tissue from a person’s body so that a doctor can look at it under a microscope. This is done to see if a person has cancer and if so, what kind it is (see also tissue).

Cancer: a name for the more than 100 diseases in which cells that are not normal grow and divide quickly. These abnormal cells usually develop into a tumor (or mass or lump). Cancer can also spread to other parts of the body from where it started. Certain kinds of cancers can grow in places like the bone marrow, where they don’t make a tumor.

Chemotherapy (KEY-mo-THAIR-uh-pee); also called chemo: a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Common side effects of chemo include short-term hair loss, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores, feeling tired, and a greater chance of getting infections. The kind of side effects a person has depends on the drugs they are getting. All chemo drugs do not cause the same side effects, and the same drug may cause somewhat different side effects in different people.

Clinical trials: research studies that are set up using human volunteers to compare new cancer treatments with the standard or usual treatments.

Fatigue (fuh-TEEG): a common symptom during cancer treatment, a bone-weary tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest. For some, this can last for some time after treatment.

Malignant (muh-LIG-nunt): cancerous. Malignancy is another word for cancer.

Metastasis (meh-TAS-tuh-sis): the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. The plural is metastases (meh-TAS-tuh-sees).

Oncologist (on-KAHL-uh-jist): a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. There are medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists.

Prognosis (prog-NO-sis): a prediction of the course of disease; the outlook for the chances of survival.

Protocol (PRO-tuh-call): a detailed, standard plan that doctors follow when treating people with cancer.

Radiation therapy: a cancer treatment that uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. This treatment is given by a machine or by materials put in or near the tumor. The side effects of radiation therapy usually show up in the part of the body being treated. For example: reddening of the skin where the radiation is given, hair loss if the head is being treated, and nausea if the stomach is being treated. Tiredness is the most common side effect of radiation.

Recurrence: the cancer has come back; the cancer cells have started to grow again after treatment.

Relapse (RE-laps): the same as recurrence; cancer that has come back after a disease-free period.

Remission (re-MISH-un): the disappearance or reduction of cancer symptoms in response to treatment. Remissions can be partial or complete; a complete remission means no sign of cancer is found on tests, scans, and physical exam.

Side effects: problems caused by cancer treatments or other medicines.

Surgery: a procedure that usually cuts open part of the body. It’s done by a surgeon, a doctor who is an expert in doing operations.

Tissue (TISH-oo): a collection of cells that work together to perform a certain job or function in the body. Different parts of the body, such as the skin, lungs, liver, or nerves can be called tissue. Doctors often biopsy tissue to find out if it has cancer cells in it (see also malignant, benign, biopsy).

Tumor: an abnormal lump of tissue. Some tumors are cancer and some are not.

There will be other words that apply to your or your family member’s treatment that your child may want to learn. You can learn more about these words and what they mean on www.cancer.org or call us at 1-800-227-2345. We can also help you learn more about the type of cancer you are dealing with, and answer your questions.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: April 27, 2015

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