Cancer Vocabulary List

A cancer diagnosis comes with a whole new vocabulary. Sometimes it may feel as if people in the healthcare field are speaking a different language. Below you will find simple definitions for the most common cancer terms. If a member of your healthcare team ever uses a term or phrase that you do not understand, ask for clarification.

Alternative Medicine— Treatments that are used instead of standard treatments. Standard treatments are based on the results of scientific research and are currently accepted and widely used. Less research has been done for most types of alternative medicine.*

Biopsy—Removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope to make a definite diagnosis of the presence of cancerous cells.

Cancer— More than 100 different diseases that can begin almost anywhere in the body; characterized by abnormal cell growth. Cancer refers to a disease of cells that grow when they shouldn’t, cells that forgot how to die.

Caregiver/ Co-Survivor— A person who is a key source of support for the person diagnosed with cancer; often a friend, family member, spouse, or co-worker.

Chemotherapy— Chemotherapy treatment (usually called “chemo”) uses medicines that prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading. Chemotherapy medicines do this by destroying cancer cells altogether or preventing them from dividing. Chemo affects your whole body because it goes through your bloodstream. Chemo doesn’t refer to one treatment but many, because there are lots of different chemotherapy medicines.

Clinical Trial— Research studies that test new drugs and treatments to find out if they are safe, effective and better than the standard of care.

Co-Pay— A fee set by the insurance provider that a patient must pay each time he or she gets medical care; this amount is less than the total cost and the insurance provider pays the rest.

CT Scan/ CAT Scan— Detailed pictures of areas of the body created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine (also known as computed tomography).

Genetic Testing— Analysis of DNA that looks for genetic alterations that may indicate an increased risk for a specific disease or disorder.

Immunotherapy— A type of treatment that stimulates the body’s own defense system to destroy cancer cells.

Lymph Nodes—Small bean-shaped organs found throughout the body that help fight infection. For many cancers, a lymph node biopsy is helpful for determining the stage of the cancer.  Cancer can spreads through the lymph system.

Metastasis— The spread of cancer from the place where the cancer began to another part of the body.

MRI— A diagnostic test, magnetic resonance imaging, that uses a magnet linked to a computer to create pictures of areas inside the body.

Oncologist— A medical doctor who diagnoses and treats cancer. There are also surgical oncologists and radiation oncologist who specialize in those forms of treatment. A healthcare team may include more than one oncologist.

Pathologist— A medical doctor who identifies diseases by studying cells and tissues under a microscope.

PET Scan— A visual scan to show how aggressive a tumor is or if tumor is responding to treatment; frequently used to scan the brain, lungs, breast, and colon.

Port— A port is a small disc made of plastic or metal. It is inserted into the chest during an outpatient surgery. A catheter (soft thin tube) connects the port to a large vein. Medicines are delivered through a thin needle right into the port. Blood can also be drawn through the port. After treatment, the port is removed in a brief outpatient procedure.

Radiation— Radiation therapy is also called radiotherapy or radiation. This treatment uses high energy rays (similar to X-rays) to destroy cancer cells or shrink tumors. This is a very effective way to destroy cancer cells that may remain after your anal cancer surgery.

Recurrence— Cancer that comes back following treatment.

Registered Dietitian— Someone who is trained in and specializes in nutrition and is certified by one or more state boards.

Social Worker— A licensed professional trained to talk with people and their families about emotional or physical needs, and to find them support services.*

Survival Rate— Average percentage of people who live for a certain period of time following diagnosis or treatment.

Survivor— A person diagnosed with cancer. In the cancer community, a person is considered to be a survivor from the time of diagnosis.

Stage— A way of describing the extent or severity of cancer, including whether it has spread near or far, and whether it is affecting the functions of other organs in the body.

Tumor— Abnormal mass of tissue that results from excessive cell division.

X-Ray— A type of radiation used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other diseases. In low doses, x-rays are used to diagnose diseases by making pictures of the inside of the body. In high doses, x-rays are used to treat cancer.*

*From National Cancer Institute.



For more terms, visit our Glossary.