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Language of Cancer

A mini-dictionary of terms relating to cancer

image of word cloud of cancer-related terms
Search the University of Michigan's online database of clinical trials

"Antipyretic. A-N-T-I-P-Y-R-E-T-I-C. Antipyretic."
With that one word, meaning a drug that reduces fever, Joanne Lagatta, of Madison, Wis., won the 1991 National Spelling Bee.

The vocabulary of cancer is also full of big, intimidating words that rarely crop up in everyday language. But the potential rewards of learning -- and understanding -- these words are much greater for people who are seeking the best treatment for their cancer. The most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that only 12% of Americans could be considered proficient in understanding health information. So we put together a highly abbreviated glossary of common cancer terms. If you need more help understanding your diagnosis, talk to your health-care team or visit the Patient Education Resource Center on Level B-1 for more resources.

And don't worry: We won't quiz you on spelling.

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adjuvant therapy [A-joo-vant THAYR-uhpee]:

additional cancer treatment given after primary treatment to lower the risk that the cancer will come back.

angiogenesis inhibitor [AN-jee-oh-JEN-eh-sis]

a substance that may prevent the formation of blood vessels; in cancer treatment, this type of drug stops the growth of new blood vessels that provide nutrients to tumors.


benign [beh-NINE]

not cancerous; capable of growing, but cannot migrate to other parts of the body


biopsy [BY-op-see]

removal of cells or tissues for examination by a pathologist.
incisional biopsy: only a sample of tissue is removed

excisional biopsy: an entire lump or suspicious area is removed

needle biopsy or fine-needle aspiration: a sample of tissue or fluid is removed with a needle


brachytherapy [BRAY-kee-THAYR-uh-pee]

procedure in which radioactive material sealed in needles, seeds, wires or catheters is placed directly into or near a tumor; also called internal radiation, implant radiation or interstitial [in-ter-STIH-shul] radiation therapy


carcinogen [kar-SIN-o-jin]

any substance that causes cancer


carcinogenesis [KAR-sih-noh-JEN-eh-sis]

the process by which normal cells are transformed into cancer cells


carcinoma [KAR-sih-NOH-muh]

cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs


clinical trial

a type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches work in people; studies test new methods of screening, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of disease [see Help Wanted: Patients key to advancing cancer treatment through clinical research].


cryosurgery [KRY-oh-SER-juh-ree]

a procedure performed with an instrument that freezes and destroys abnormal tissues; used to treat some kinds of cancer as well as precancerous or noncancerous conditions


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gene therapy

treatment that alters a gene; in studies of gene therapy for cancer, researchers are trying to improve the body's natural ability to fight the disease or to make cancer cells more sensitive to treatment

an indicator based on how abnormal

cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread.


hyperthermia therapy:
treatment in which

body tissue is exposed to high temperatures to damage and kill cancer cells or to make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation and certain anticancer drugs.


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in situ [in SY-too]

in its original place; for example: carcinoma in situ means abnormal cells found in the place where they first formed and that have not spread.


laser-induced interstitial thermotherapy [IN-ter-STIH-shul THER-moh-THAYR-uhpee]

a procedure in which a laser at the tip of an optical fiber is inserted into a tumor, raising the temperature of tumor cells, damaging or destroying them.


loop electrosurgical excision procedure

a surgical procedure that uses a thin, wire loop charged with an electric current to remove cancerous tissue.


lymphatic system [lim-FA-tik SIS-tem]

tissues, fluid and organs -- including the spleen, lymph nodes and bone marrow -- that produce, store and carry white blood cells that fight disease.


lymphedema [LIM-fuh-DEE-muh]

a condition in which extra lymph fluid builds up in tissues and causes swelling; often caused by damage to lymph vessels during surgery.


malignant [muh-LIG-nunt]

cancerous; capable of invading and destroying nearby tissue as well as spreading to other parts of the body.


metastasis [meh-TAS-tuh-sis]

spread of cancer from one part of the body to another; a tumor formed by cells that have spread is called a metastatic tumor [plural: metastases (meh-TAS-tuh-sees)].


metastasize [meh-TAS-ta-size

to spread from one part of the body to another.


monoclonal antibody [MAH-noh-KLOHnul]

AN-tee-BAH-dee): a substance that can locate and bind to cancer cells wherever they are in the body; may be used for cancer detection or treatment.


mucositis [mu-co-SY-tis]

a complication of some cancer therapies in which the lining of the digestive system becomes inflamed; may cause sores in the mouth.


neoadjuvant therapy [NEE-oh-A-joo-vant] THAYR-uh-pee)

treatment, such as chemotherapy or radiation, given to shrink a tumor before the main treatment, usually surgery.


neoplasia [NEE-o-PLAY-zha]

abnormal and uncontrolled cell growth.


neoplasm [NEE-o-pla-zm]

tumor; a cancerous or non-cancerous mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should.


neutropenia [noo-troh-PEE-nee-uh]

a condition involving a lower-than-normal number of a type of white blood cells.


oncogene [ON-koh-jeen]

a mutated version of the proto-oncogene, a gene that directs cell growth; causes cells to grow and divide too rapidly.



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peripheral neuropathy [peh-RIH-feh-rul noor-AH-puh-thee]

a potential side effect of chemotherapy that affects the nervous system, causing numbness, tingling, burning or weakness, particularly in the hands or feet./div>


photodynamic therapy [FOH-toh-dy-NAmik THAYR-uh-pee]

treatment with drugs that become active and kill cancer cells when exposed to light primary tumor: the original tumor.



a molecule made up of amino acids that are needed for the body to function properly; proteins are the basis of body structures, including organs, as well as substances, such as hormones, that regulate the body.



an action plan for a clinical trial; the plan states, step by step, what the study will do, how and why.


radiation recall

a reaction to chemotherapy in which the skin covering an area that has been treated with radiation may turn red, blister or peel.



cancer that has come back, usually after a period of time when the cancer could not be detected.


secondary tumor

a cancer that has spread from the place in which it started to other parts of the body; made up of the same type of cells as those in the original, or primary, tumor.



the extent of a cancer in the body; staging is usually based on the size of the tumor, whether lymph nodes contain cancer and whether the cancer has spread from the original site to other parts of the body.


stomatitis [sto-muh-TY-tus

inflammation or irritation of the mucous membranes in the mouth.


systemic therapy

treatment that travels via the bloodstream and affects all cells throughout the body; chemotherapy is a form of systemic therapy.


targeted therapy

a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells.



a cancerous or non-cancerous mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should; also called neoplasm.


tumor suppressor gene

a type of gene that helps control cell growth.



a particle used to carry genetic information to cells during gene therapy; viruses are commonly used as vectors.

Continue learning about communicating with your doctor:

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Thrive Issue: 
Summer, 2010