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CancerResource: Glossary of Terms

Understanding the terminology of medical treatment is often confusing and frustrating to patients. Yet, specialized medical terminology allows doctors and health professionals to be precise in communicating important information about the health and care of their patients. It is also a language they feel comfortable communicating in, and which they sometimes forget is not completely understood by others.

The following glossary defines some of the basic terms associated with cancer and cancer care. Remember, your health care providers are there to help you. If you don't understand what is being said, ask them to explain it in simpler terms.

Adenocarcinoma – A cancer that develops in gland-forming tissue. Most breast cancers are adenocarcinomas. (See Carcinoma).

Adjuvant therapy – Anticancer drugs or hormones given after surgery and/or radiation to help prevent the cancer from recurring.

Alternative Medicine – Diagnosis, treatment and/or prevention which complements mainstream medicine by contributing to a common whole, by satisfying a demand not met by orthodoxy or by diversifying the conceptual framework of medicine.

Anemia – Having too few red blood cells. Symptoms of anemia include feeling tired, weak, and short of breath.

Benign – A term used to describe a tumor that is not cancerous.

Biological therapy – Treatment to stimulate or restore the ability of the immune system to fight infection and disease. Also used to lessen the side effects of some cancer treatments. Includes the use of interferon, interleukins, monoclonal antibodies, colony-stimulating factors, and vaccines. Also called immunotherapy or biological response modifier therapy.

Biopsy – The removal of a sample of tissue or cells for examination under a microscope for purposes of diagnosis.

Bone marrow – The inner, spongy tissue of bones where blood cells are made.

Botanicals – Foods and supplements derived from any plant part, including the seeds, flowers, fruits, roots, leaves and stems. Used to treat diseases or improve health.

Cancer – A general name for more than 100 diseases in which abnormal cells grow out of control; a malignant tumor.

Carcinogen – Any substance that causes cancer in animals or humans.

Carcinoma – Cancer that begins in epithelial tissues, which line or cover the surfaces of organs, glands and other body structures. Most cancers in humans are carcinomas. (See Adenocarcinoma).

Carcinoma in situ – Cancer that is confined to the cells where it began, and has not spread into surrounding tissues.

Chemotherapy – The use of drugs to treat cancer.

Clinical trials – Medical research studies conducted with volunteers. Each study is designed to answer specific scientific questions and to find better ways to prevent or treat cancer.

Complementary Medicine – Diagnosis, treatment and/or prevention which complements mainstream medicine by contributing to a common whole, by satisfying a demand not met by orthodoxy or by diversifying the conceptual frameworks of medicine.

Diet – Food and drink regularly consumed for nourishment.

Dietary Supplement – A product (other than tobacco) intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one of more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb or other botanical; intended for ingestion in the form of a capsule, powder, softgel or gelcap, and not represented as a conventional food or as a sole item of a meal or the diet.

Enteral feeding – Nutrients provided by mouth or through the gastrointestinal tract.

Health care team – A group of trained professionals who work together to provide patient care. For example, a physician, nurse, registered dietitian, physical therapist, radiation therapist, social worker.

Hormone therapy – The use of drugs or surgery to remove, block, or add hormones in order to treat cancer. It is used to treat cancers of the breast, prostate and other hormone-responsive tissues.

Immune system – Complex network of cells and organs that protect the body from attacks by foreign "invaders." It is one of the body’s main defenses against disease.

Immunotherapy – See biological therapy.

Integrative medicine – A term used to refer to the integration of complementary/alternative medicine into conventional treatment.

Lymphatic system – The organs and tissues that produce, store and carry white blood cells that fight infection and other diseases. Includes the bone marrow, spleen, thymus, lymph nodes, and a network of thin tubes that carry lymph and white blood cells into tissues of the body.

Lymph nodes – Small bean-shaped structures scattered throughout the body along the channels of the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes contain white blood cells and act as filters keeping bacteria and cancer cells from entering the bloodstream.

Malignant – A term used to describe a tumor that is cancerous. It can invade surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Metastasis – When cancer cells break away from their original site and spread to other parts of the body.

Mutation – Change in the genes or hereditary material in cells.

Nutrients – Essential chemical compounds found in food (protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, water) that are needed for normal body function.

Oncologist – A physician who specializes in treating cancer. A board–certified oncologist has specialty training and has passed examinations in that specialty area of expertise.

Parenteral feeding – Nutrients provided through a vein, bypassing the gastrointestinal tract.

Phytochemicals – Substances found in plants that may reduce the risk of cancer.

Platelets – Special blood cells that help form clots and stop bleeding.

Primary care – Doctor that oversees your general medical care. Can refer you to appropriate specialists, when needed.

Prognosis – The likely outcome of a disease; the chance of recovery.

Radiation therapy – Cancer treatment with high–energy rays, used to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.

Red blood cells – Cells that supply oxygen to tissues throughout the body.

Registered dietitian – An expert on the role of food and nutrition in health and disease. An RD must have at least a four–year college degree in this area and must pass an extensive examination on their knowledge to become registered. RDs may also be called nutritionists, but not all nutritionists are RDs.

Remission – The partial or complete disappearance of signs and symptoms of disease.

Sarcoma – A cancer of supportive or connective tissue, such as cartilage, bone or muscle.

Stage – The extent of cancer in the body, and whether it has spread from the original location to other parts of the body. Staging refers to testing to determine whether the cancer has spread.

Tumor – An abnormal growth of cells or tissues. Tumors may be benign (non–cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

White blood cells – The cells of the immune system that fight infection.

Published on May 21, 2012

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