Basic Cancer Terms

This is your guide to standard terms used by clinicians and other health-care professionals. Learn these terms to better communicate with your health care team.

Adenosquamous Carcinoma: A type of cancer that contains two types of cells: squamous cells (thin, flat cells that line certain organs) and gland-like cells.

Androgen deprivation therapy (ADT): Many types of hormone therapy that slow tumor growth by preventing the body from producing androgens (male hormones).

Angiogenesis: A physiological process involving the growth of new blood vessels from pre-existing vessels; a fundamental step in the transition of tumors from a dormant state to a malignant state.

Axillary lymph node dissection: Surgery to remove lymph nodes in the underarm area when cancer has been detected through a sentinel node biopsy or needle biopsy.

Brachytherapy: Also called internal radiation therapy. Involves placing tiny radioactive “seeds,” needles or wires near or directly into a tumor.

Carcinoma: Cancer that starts in skin or tissues that line the inside or cover the outside of internal organs.

CAR T-cell therapy: A treatment in which a patient’s T-cells (a type of immune system cell) are changed in the laboratory so they will attack cancer cells. They are given to the patient by IV infusion.

Cells: Basic elements of tissues; the appearance and composition of individual cells are unique to the tissue they compose.

Chemoradiation: Combines chemotherapy with radiation therapy. Also called chemoradiotherapy.

Chemotherapy: Drugs used to destroy cancer cells by interfering with their growth and/or preventing their reproduction.

Colectomy: Surgery to remove all or part of the colon.

Colostomy: Surgical procedure to provide a new pathway for bowel function when part of the colon has been removed; one end of the colon is attached to an opening (stoma) created in the abdomen. Waste collects in an exterior pouch.

Cryoablation: A procedure that kills cancer cells by freezing them with a probe super cooled with liquid nitrogen or a similar substance. Also called cryotherapy or cryosurgery.

Cystectomy: Surgical procedure (radical cystectomy) to remove the bladder, lymph nodes in the pelvis, and sometimes the prostate and urethra for men, and the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries and part of the vagina for women.

DNA: The molecules inside cells that carry genetic information and pass it from one generation to the next.

Enzyme: A protein that speeds up chemical reactions in the body.

External-beam radiation therapy: A type of radiation therapy that uses a machine to aim high-energy rays at the cancer from outside of the body. Different types are available.

HER1: The protein found on the surface of some cells and to which epidermal growth factor binds, causing the cells to divide. It is found at abnormally high levels on the surface of many types of cancer cells, so these cells may divide excessively in the presence of epidermal growth factor.

HER2/neu: A protein involved in normal cell growth found in high levels on some breast cancer cells.

Hereditary Mutation: A gene change in a body’s reproductive cell (egg or sperm) that becomes incorporated into the DNA of every cell in the body of the offspring. Hereditary mutations are passed on from parents to offspring.

Hormone: A substance produced by an organ or gland that is carried by the blood and produces a specific effect on other organs or glands.

Ileostomy: Surgical procedure to provide a new pathway for bowel function when the colon has been removed; the small intestine is attached to an opening (stoma) created in the abdomen. Waste collects in a pouch.

Lumpectomy: Breast-conserving surgery that removes only the tumor and a small margin of healthy tissue around it.

Lymph Nodes: Tissues in the lymphatic system that filter lymph fluid and help the immune system fight disease.

Malignant: Cancerous, growing and is capable of invading into adjacent tissues.

Mastectomy: Surgical removal of the whole breast, usually leaving the chest wall muscles intact. Performed in different ways, including total mastectomy, modified radical, skin sparing and nipple sparing.

Medical Oncologist: A doctor who is specially trained in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and who specializes in the use of chemotherapy and other drugs to treat cancer.

Metastasis: The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another.

Multidisciplinary Care: Team approach to the care of patients with cancer in which physicians in many different areas of specialization join to provide their expertise and experience.

Oncogene: A normal gene that when mutated plays a significant role in causing cancer.

Oncologist: A doctor who specializes in caring for people who have cancer.

Palliative Care: Treatment intended to relieve symptoms caused by cancer, rather than to cure it, and improve quality of life.

Pneumonectomy: Surgical procedure to remove an entire lung.

Prostatectomy: Surgery to remove part or all of the prostate and some of the tissue around it.

Radiation: Treatment of cancer with high-energy rays that destroy cancer cells.

Radiofrequency ablation (RFA): A procedure that uses radio waves to heat and destroy abnormal cells. The radio waves travel through electrodes (small devices that carry electricity).

Radioimmunotherapy: A type of radiation therapy in which a radioactive substance is linked to a monoclonal antibody and injected into the body. The radioactive substance gives off radiation, which may help kill cancer cells.

Radiopharmaceuticals: Intravenous (IV) drugs that give off targeted radiation to suppress cancer in the bones and reduce pain.

Reconstructive Surgery: Surgery that is done to reshape or rebuild a part of the body changed by previous surgery.

Recurrence: The return of cancer cells and signs of cancer after being cancer free.

Remission: A decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer, but not necessarily the entire disease.

Segmental resection: Surgical procedure to remove a tumor involving a larger section of a lobe of the lung than in a wedge resection. Also called a segmentectomy.

Sleeve resection: Surgery to remove part of the bronchus or the pulmonary artery to the lung along with one lobe to save other portions of the lung. Also called a sleeve lobectomy.

Splenectomy: Surgery to remove the spleen.

Subcutaneous: Under the skin.

Sublobar resection: Surgery to remove one of the five lobes of the lungs. Also called a lobectomy.

Surgical castration: Procedure that removes both testicles.

Systemic therapy: Type of treatment that travels through the bloodstream, reaching and affecting cells throughout the body.

Transurethral bladder tumor resection (TURBT): Minimally invasive surgery to remove early-stage tumors with a wire loop passed through a cystocope that accesses the bladder through the urethra.

Tumor: A growth of tissue that forms an abnormal mass.

Video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS): Surgery to remove lung tissue with specially designed instruments. VATS includes using small incisions that may reduce complications and shorten recovery time.

Wedge resection: Surgery to remove the tumor with a triangular piece of a lobe of the lung.