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Glossary of Cancer Terms

Benign: A tumor or cells that are not cancerous.

Biopsy: A biopsy is a minor surgery to get body fluid or small pieces of body tissue to look at under a microscope to see if there are cancer cells. The removed cells or tissues are usually examined by a pathologist. Biopsies can include 1) incisional biopsies, in which only a sample of tissue is removed; 2) an excisional biopsy, in which an entire lump or suspicious area is removed; and 3) needle biopsies, in which a sample of tissue or fluid is removed with a needle.

Bone marrow: The soft, sponge-like tissue in the center of most bones. Bone marrow makes all kinds of blood cells: white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets (clotting cells).

Bone marrow transplant: Bone marrow transplants are often used to treat blood cancers. Bone marrow is a spongy tissue found inside bones. For a bone marrow transplant, cells are taken from the bone marrow of a donor and put inside a patient to make new blood cells.

Cancer: A disease in which cells grow out of control. Cancer cells can invade nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer survivor: A person who has been diagnosed with cancer, from the time of diagnosis until the end of life.

Carcinogen: A substance or agent that causes cancer.

Carcinoma: A cancer that starts in the skin or the tissues that line internal organs.

Caregiver: A person who provides support and help to a cancer survivor.

Chemotherapy: Special medicines used to shrink or kill cancer cells. The drugs can be pills you take or medicines given in your veins, or sometimes both.

Chronic disease: A disease that a person has for a long period of time. Cancer can be a chronic disease.

Late effect: A health problem that occurs months or years after a disease is diagnosed or after treatment has ended. Late effects may be caused by cancer or cancer treatment. They may include physical, mental, psychosocial problems, and second cancers.

Long-term side effect: A problem that is caused by a disease or treatment of a disease and may continue for months or years after treatment. Some long-term side effects of cancer treatment vary for patients and can include heart, lung, kidney, or gastrointestinal tract problems; pain, numbness, tingling, loss of feeling, or heat or cold sensitivity in the hands or feet; fatigue; hearing loss; cataracts; and dry eyes or dry mouth.

Metastasis: The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another, through the lymph system or bloodstream. A tumor formed by cells that have spread is called a “metastatic tumor” or a “metastasis.” The metastatic tumor contains cells that are like those in the original (primary) tumor.

Oncology: The branch of medicine that focuses on the development, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. A medical doctor who manages a person’s care and treatment after a cancer diagnosis is called an oncologist.

Quality of life: A cancer survivor’s overall enjoyment of life, including his or her sense of well-being and the physical, mental, emotional, and social ability to do the things he or she wants to do.

Radiation therapy: Using high-energy rays (similar to X-rays) to kill cancer cells.

Radiologist: Doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases and injuries using medical imaging techniques, such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear medicine, positron emission tomography (PET), and ultrasound.

Recurrence: When a cancer comes back in the same place after treatment or after remission.

Remission: When the cancer has gotten smaller, is gone, or is under control. Partial remission means that the cancer is still there, but the tumor is smaller or there is less cancer throughout the body. Complete remission means doctors cannot find any signs of cancer in the body.

Survivorship care plan: A complete record of a cancer patient’s cancer history, treatments given, the need for future checkups and cancer tests, possible long-term effects of the treatment, and ideas for staying healthy. The plan needs to identify the health care providers that were responsible for care.

Tumor: A tumor is an abnormal growth of body tissue. Tumors can be cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign). Cancerous tumors can have uncontrolled growth and may spread to other parts of the body. Noncancerous tumors do not grow or spread.