Cancer Terminology Decoded

20 Aug 2021

At Pink Hope we know that a cancer diagnosis is hard enough to deal with, let alone trying to understand all the acronyms, phrases and words that suddenly enter the conversation adding to what can often feel like total overwhelm and deep confusion.  

To assist you and your support team while you are guided to make decisions concerning diagnosis and treatment, we’ve decoded several of the most common terms and words to lessen the cognitive overload. 

Terms you may hear during diagnosis: 

  • Active Treatment– This is the period of treatment after a cancer diagnosis which can include some, or all of, the following: surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy. 
  • Carcinoma – Another word for cancer. 
  • Gynecologic Cancer- Cancer of the female reproductive tract, including the ovaries, cervix, endometrium, fallopian tubes, uterus, and vagina. 
  • Grade - A score that describes how quickly the tumour is likely to grow. 
  • Multidisciplinary Team- A health care team consisting of a group of experts, including doctors, nurses and other health professionals who specialise in the treatment of specific types of cancer. 

    Most doctors who treat the common types of cancer work with experts in a multidisciplinary team. A multidisciplinary team can include a general practitioner, a surgeon, a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, a palliative care specialist, a nurse consultant, nurses, a dietician, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, a social worker, a psychologist, a counsellor and a pastoral care worker. 
  • Metastasis - Also known as a secondary cancer. A cancer that has spread from another part of the body. 
  • Primary Cancer/ Site- The location of the original cancer. Cells from the primary cancer may break away and be carried to other parts of the body, where secondary cancers form.  
  • Recurrent Cancer - A cancer that grows from the cells of a primary cancer that have evaded treatment. 
  • Secondary Cancer - Also called a metastasis. A tumour that has spread from the original site to another part of the body. 
  • Screening - An organised program (using tests, examinations or other procedures) to identify disease such as cancer, or changes which may later develop into disease such as cancer, before symptoms appear. Screening can only be done if there is a reliable and simple test for the disease, such as the cervical smear test or mammogram. 
  • Tumour - An abnormal growth of tissue. It may be localised (benign) or invade adjacent tissues (malignant) or distant tissues (metastatic). 
  • Tumour Markers - Chemicals produced by cancer cells and released into the blood. These may suggest the presence of a tumour in the body. It’s important to note that some tumours will not have any tumour markers. 

Terms you may hear from your surgeon 

  • Axillary Dissection/Clearance- Removal of some, or all, of the lymph nodes from the armpit to see if the breast cancer has spread beyond the breast. 
  • Breast Conserving Surgery- Surgery to remove breast cancer and a small area of healthy tissue around the cancer. Also known as lumpectomy or partial mastectomy. 
  • Gynecologic Oncologist- A doctor who specializes in treating cancers of the female reproductive organs. Gynecologic oncologists are expert surgeons. 
  • Clear Margin - When a malignant tumour is surgically removed some surrounding tissue will be removed with it. If this surrounding tissue does not contain any cancer cells it is said to be a clear margin. 
  • Mastectomy- removal of a single or both (Double Mastectomy) breasts during breast cancer 
  • Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) - non-invasive breast cancer confined to the ducts of the breast. 
  • Early Breast Cancer- Breast cancer that has not spread beyond the breast or lymph nodes under the arm (known as axillary lymph nodes) is called an early breast cancer. 
  • Lobular Carcinoma In Situ (LCIS)- non-invasive breast cancer that is confined to the lobules of the breast. 
  • Low Malignant Potential (LMP) Tumor- A condition in which cells that may become cancer form in the thin tissue that covers the ovary. In this condition, tumor cells rarely spread outside of the ovary. Also called ovarian borderline malignant tumor. 
  • Lymphadenectomy - Removal of the lymph glands from a part of the body. 
  • Lymphoedema - Swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid. This happens when lymph nodes do not drain properly, usually after lymph glands are removed. 
  • Radical Local Excision - An operation that cuts out the cancer and a larger area of normal tissue all around the cancer. 
  • Sentinel Node- The first lymph node to receive lymph fluid from a tumour. 
  • Surgical Oncologist- A doctor who specialises in the surgical treatment of cancer. 

Terms you may hear about treatment 

  • Active treatment -The period of treatment after a breast cancer diagnosis which can include some, or all of, the following: surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy. 
  • Adjuvant Therapy or Adjuvant Treatment- Treatment given after the primary treatment to increase the chances of a cure. In cancer, adjuvant treatment often refers to chemotherapy, hormonal therapy or radiotherapy after surgery, which is aimed at killing any remaining cancer cells. 
  • Aromatase Inhibitors - Hormonal therapy drugs which are often prescribed after active treatment (ie surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiotherapy) is completed. Hormone therapies are used to treat women who are diagnosed with hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. Examples of aromatase inhibitors include anastrozole (Arimidex), letrozole (Femara) and exemestane (Aromasin).  
  • Cannula -A plastic tube inserted into a narrow opening so that fluids can be introduced or removed. 
  • Catheter - A hollow, flexible tube through which fluids can be passed into the body or drained from it. 
  • Central Line - A plastic tube inserted into a vein in your chest.
  • Chemotherapy - The use of drugs, which kill or slow cell growth, to treat cancer. These are called cytotoxic drugs. 
  • Complementary Therapy- Therapy used together with standard medical treatment. Examples include counselling, relaxation therapy, massage, acupuncture, yoga and meditation, aromatherapy, and art and music therapy. 
  • Early Menopause - Menopause occurring in women under 45 years of age. Early menopause is often a side effect of some common treatments for breast cancer. 
  • Hormone Therapy/Treatment- A treatment that blocks the body's natural hormones, which help cancer grow. 
  • Induction therapy - Initial treatment used to reduce ovarian cancer. Induction therapy is followed by other treatments, such as chemotherapy, to get rid of cancer that remains. Also called first-line therapy, primary therapy, and primary treatment. 
  • Intraperitoneal (IP) chemotherapy- Treatment in which chemotherapy is delivered directly into the abdomen through a thin tube. 
  • Intravenous Infusion- The injection of fluids, such as chemotherapy drugs or other substances the body needs, into the blood stream using a needle. 
  • Immunotherapy- Treatment to boost or restore the ability of the patient’s immune system to fight cancer, infections, and other diseases. 
  • Medical Oncologist- A doctor who specialises in diagnosing and treating cancer using chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and biological therapy. A medical oncologist often is the main health care provider for someone who has cancer. A medical oncologist also gives supportive care and may coordinate treatment given by other specialists. 
  • Neoadjuvant Therapy or Neoadjuvant Treatment- Treatment given before the main treatment to increase the chances of a cure. 
  • Neutropenia - An abnormally low number of a particular type of white blood cell, called a neutrophil. This is often caused by chemotherapy and may result in an increased risk of infection. 
  • Port - A very slender, flexible tube that feeds directly into one of the major veins near the heart used to give chemotherapy drugs without having to find a suitable vein each time. A port is implanted under the skin in the chest wall or, less commonly, the arm, and it can stay in place for as long as you need it. 
  • PICC- A peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line inserted into a vein in the arm near the elbow and travels into a larger vein near the heart, a PICC can also stay in place for as long as you need it. 
  • Radiation Oncologist - A doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiotherapy. 
  • Radiotherapy or Radiation Oncology - The use of radiation, usually x-rays or gamma rays, to kill tumour cells or injure them so they cannot grow or multiply. 
  • Radiation Tattoos– Tiny skin markings or radiation tattoos put on your breast skin. These marks help your radiation therapist aim the radiation precisely where it's needed during the planning process. 
  • Simulator - A machine that takes x-rays to help pinpoint where radiotherapy should be targeted. 
  • Tamoxifen - A hormone therapy drug that blocks the effects of oestrogen in cancer cells; a treatment for oestrogen-receptive and progesterone-receptive cancers. 

Additional terms you may hear 

  • Remission – A period of time when the symptoms of the cancer reduce or disappear. A partial remission is when there has been a significant improvement in the cancer. A complete remission is when there is no evidence of active disease. This does not necessarily mean that the cancer is cured. 
  • Survivorship - In cancer, survivorship focuses on the health and life of a person with cancer beyond the diagnosis and treatment phases. Survivorship includes issues related to follow-up care, late effects of treatment, second cancers, and quality of life. Family members, friends, and caregivers are also part of the survivorship experience.