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Cancer Glossary

The cancer terms and definitions on this page have been compiled by the Nursing Advisory Board of Pharmacia & Upjohn Company to provide you with a better understanding of words frequently used in cancer care. If you have any questions related to the definitions in this somewhat abbreviated dictionary/glossary of cancer terms, please consult your health care provider.



A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | L | M | N | O | P | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z 

A

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)
AIDS is a viral disease that destroys the body's ability to fight infections, leaving the body susceptible to many other diseases. AIDS is also known as Autoimmune Immunodeficiency Syndrome
Acute
A sudden onset of symptoms or disease.
Adenocarcinoma
See Carcinoma.
Adenoma
A benign tumor made up of glandular tissue. For example, an adenoma of the pituitary gland may cause it to produce abnormal amounts of hormones.
Adrenal glands
Two small organs near the kidneys that release hormones.
AFP (Alpha fetoprotein)
A tumor marker.
Alopecia
The loss of hair, which may include all body hair as well as scalp hair.
Analgesic
Any drug that relieves pain. Aspirin and acetaminophen are mild analgesics.
Anemia
A condition in which a decreased number of red blood cells may cause symptoms including tiredness, shortness of breath, and weakness.
Anorexia
The loss of appetite.
Antibody
A substance formed by the body to help defend it against infection.
Antiemetic agent
A drug that prevents or controls nausea and vomiting.
Antifungal agent
A drug used to treat fungal infections.
Antigen
Any substance that causes the body to produce natural antibodies.
Antineoplastic agent
A drug that prevents, kills, or blocks the growth and spread of cancer cells.
Arrhythmia
An irregular heartbeat.
Aspiration
The process of removing fluid or tissue, or both, from a specific area.
Autoimmunity
A condition in which the body's immune system mistakenly fights and rejects the body's own tissues.
Axilla
The armpit.
Axillary nodes
Lymph nodes - also called lymph glands ­ found in the armpit (axilla).

B

Barium enema
The use of a milky solution (barium sulfate) given by an enema to allow x-ray examination of the lower intestinal tract.
Barium swallow
The use of a milky solution (barium sulfate) given orally to allow x-ray examination of the upper intestinal tract.
Benign growth
A swelling or growth that is not cancerous and does not spread from one part of the body to another.
Biopsy
The surgical removal of tissue for microscopic examination to aid in diagnosis.
Blood cells
Minute structures produced in the bone marrow; they consist of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
Blood count
The number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in a sample of blood.
Bone marrow
The spongy material found inside the bones. Most blood cells are made in the bone marrow.
Bone marrow biopsy and aspiration
The procedure by which a needle is inserted into a bone to withdraw a sample of bone marrow.
Bone marrow suppression
A decrease in the production of blood cells. Bone marrow suppression is a side effect of chemotherapy treatment in come cases.
Bone marrow transplant
The infusion of bone marrow into a patient who has been treated with high dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Patients may use their own marrow, which in some cases has been frozen.
Allogeneic
The infusion of bone marrow from one individual (donor) to another.
Autologous
The infusion of a patient's own bone marrow previously removed and stored.
Syngeneic
The infusion of bone marrow from one identical twin into another.
Bone scan
A picture of the bones using a radioactive dye that shows any injury, disease, or healing. This is a valuable test to determine if cancer has spread to the bone, if anticancer therapy has been successful, and if affected bony areas are healing.
Breast self-examination (BSE)
A manual self-examination of the breasts.
Bronchoscopy
The insertion of a flexible, lighted tube through the mouth into the lungs to examine the lungs and airways.

C

Cancer
A group of diseases in which malignant cells grow out of control and spread to other parts of the body. Find more information on Cancer.
Cancer in situ
The stage where the cancer is still confined to the tissue in which it started.
Candidiasis
A common fungal infection.
Carcinogen
A substance that causes cancer. For example, nicotine in cigarettes is a carcinogen that causes lung cancer.
Carcinoma
A type of cancer that starts in the skin or the lining of organs.
Adenocarcinoma
A malignant tumor arising from glandular tissue.
Basal cell carcinoma
The most common type of skin cancer.
Bronchogenic carcinoma
A cancer originating in the lungs or airways.
Cervical carcinoma
A cancer of the cervix (the neck of the uterus).
Endometrial carcinoma
A cancer of the lining of the uterus.
Squamous cell carcinoma
Cancer arising from the skin or the surfaces of other structures, such as the mouth, cervix, or lungs.
Cardiomegaly
An enlargement of the heart.
CAT scan (CT scan)
A test using computers and x-rays to create images of various parts of the body.
CEA (Carcinoembryonic antigen)
A blood tumor marker.
Cellulitis
The inflammation of an area of the skin (epithelial layer).
Central venous catheter
A special intravenous tubing that is surgically inserted into a large vein near the heart and exits from the chest or abdomen. The catheter allows medications, fluids, or blood products to be given and blood samples to be taken.
Cervical nodes
Lymph nodes in the neck.
Chemotherapy
The treatment of cancer with drugs is called chemotherapy.
Adjuvant chemotherapy
Chemotherapy given to kill any remaining cancer cells, usually after all detectable tumor is removed by surgery or radiotherapy.
Combination chemotherapy
The use of more than one drug during cancer treatment.
Chronic
Persisting over a long period of time.
Colonoscopy
A procedure to look at the colon or large bowel through a lighted, flexible tube.
Colony-stimulating factor (CSF)
An injectable substance used to stimulate the bone marrow to produce more cells.
Colostomy
A surgical procedure by which an opening is created between the colon and the outside of the abdomen to allow stool to be emptied into a collection bag.
Colposcopy
Examination of the vagina and cervix with an instrument called a colposcope.
Congestive heart failure
A buildup of fluid in the lungs or extremities, or both (especially the legs). This occurs if the heart cannot pump the blood adequately.
Cyst
An accumulation of fluid or semisolid material within a sac.
Cystitis
An inflammation of the bladder.

D

Drug resistance
The result of cells' ability to resist the effects of a specific drug.
Dysphagia
Difficulty in swallowing.
Dyspnea
Difficult or painful breathing; shortness of breath.
Dysuria
Difficult or painful urination.

E

Edema
The accumulation of fluid in part of the body.
Effusion
A collection of fluid in a body cavity, usually between two adjoining tissues. For example, a pleural effusion is the collection of fluid between two layers of the pleura (the lung's covering).
Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG)
A test that takes recordings of the electrical activity of the heart.
Endoscopy
A procedure looking at the inside of body cavities, such as the esophagus (food pipe) or stomach.
Erythema
Redness of the skin.
Erythrocyte
The red blood cell that carries oxygen to body cells and carbon dioxide away from body cells.
Esophagitis
Inflammation of the esophagus (food pipe).
Estrogen
A female hormone produced primarily by the ovaries.
Estrogen receptor assay (ER assay)
A test that determines if breast cancer is stimulated by the hormone estrogen.
Excision
Surgical removal.
Extravasation
The leaking of intravenous fluids or medications into tissue surrounding the infusion site. Extravasation may cause tissue damage.

F

Fine-needle aspirate
A procedure in which a needle is inserted, under local anesthesia, to obtain a sample for the evaluation of suspicious tissue.
Fistula
An abnormal opening between two areas of the body.
Frozen section
A technique in which tissue is removed and then quick-frozen and examined under a microscope by a pathologist.

G

Granulocyte
A type of white blood cell that kills bacteria.
Guaiac test
A test that checks for hidden blood in the stool.

H

Hematocrit (Hct)
The percentage of red blood cells in the blood. A low hematocrit measurement indicates anemia.
Hematologist
A doctor who specializes in the problems of blood and bone marrow.
Hematology
The science that studies the blood.
Hematuria
Blood in the urine.
Hemoccult (Guaiac) test
A test that checks for hidden blood in the stool.
Herpes simplex
The most common virus that causes sores often seen around the mouth, commonly called cold sores.
Herpes zoster
A virus that settles around certain nerves causing blisters, swelling, and pain. This condition is also called shingles.
Hodgkin's disease
A cancer that affects the lymph nodes. See Lymphoma.
Hormones
Substances secreted by various organs of the body that regulate growth, metabolism, and reproduction.
Hospice
A concept of supportive care to meet the special needs of patients and family during the terminal stages of illness. The care may be delivered in the home or hospital by a specially trained team of professionals.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
The virus that causes AIDS.
Human leukocyte antigen test (HLA)
A special blood test used to match a blood or bone marrow donor to a recipient for transfusion or transplant.
Hyperalimentation
The intravenous administration of a highly nutritious solution.

I

Ileostomy
A surgical opening in the abdomen connected to the small intestine to allow stool to be emptied into a collection bag.
Immunity (Immune system)
The body's ability to fight infection and disease.
Immunosuppression
Weakening of the immune system that causes a lowered ability to fight infection and disease.
Immunotherapy
The artificial stimulation of the body's immune system to treat or fight disease.
Infiltration
The leaking of fluid or medicines into tissues, which can cause swelling.
Infusion
Delivering fluids or medications into the bloodstream over a period of time.
Infusion pump
A device that delivers measured amounts of fluids or medications into the bloodstream over a period of time.
Injection
Pushing a medication into the body with the use of a syringe and needle.
Intramuscular (IM) injection
Into the muscle.
Intravenous (IV) injection
Into the vein.
Subcutaneous injection
Into the fatty tissue under the skin.
Interferon
A naturally produced chemical released by the body in response to viral infections. Interferon can be artificially produced and used as a form of immunotherapy.
Interleukin
A naturally produced chemical released by the body.

L

Laryngectomy
The surgical removal of the larynx.
Lesion
A lump or abscess that may be caused by injury or disease, such as cancer.
Leukemia
Cancer of the blood. White blood cells may be produced in excessive amounts and are unable to work properly.
Leukocyte
See White blood cell.
Leukopenia
A low number of white blood cells.
Lumpectomy
See Mastectomy-Segmental.
Lymphangiogram
A test to look at the lymph nodes.
Lymphatic system
A network that includes lymph nodes, lymph, and lymph vessels that serves as a filtering system for the blood.
Lymphedema
Swelling either from obstructed cancerous lymph nodes or from surgically removed lymph nodes.
Lymph nodes
Hundreds of small oval bodies that contain lymph. Lymph nodes act as our first line of defense against infections and cancer.
Lymphocytes
White blood cells that kill viruses and defend against the invasion of foreign material.
Lymphoma
A cancer of the lymphatic system. Doctors differentiate the different lymphomas by the type of cell that is involved in the makeup of the tumor. Treatments depend on the type of cell that is seen.

M

Malignant tumor
A tumor made up of cancer cells of the type that can spread to other parts of the body.
Mammogram (Mammography)
A low-dose x-ray / picture of the breasts to determine whether abnormal growths or cysts are present.
Mastectomy
The surgical removal of the breast.
Mastectomy - Segmental (lumpectomy)
Removal of the lump and a small amount of surrounding breast tissue.
Mastectomy - Simple (modified mastectomy)
Removal of the entire breast.
Mastectomy - Radical
Removal of the entire breast along with underlying muscle and lymph nodes of the armpit.
Melanoma
A cancer of the pigment-forming cells of the skin or the retina of the eye.
Metastasize
To spread from the first cancer site, for example, breast cancer that spreads to the bone.
Monoclonal antibodies
Artificially manufactured antibodies specifically designed to find targets on cancer cells for diagnostic or treatment purposes.
MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging)
A sophisticated test that provides in-depth images of organs and structures in the body.
Mucosa (Mucous membranes)
The lining of the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.
Mucositis
Inflammation of the lining of the mouth or gastrointestinal tract.
Myelogram
An x-ray procedure by which a dye is injected into the spinal column to show any pathology of the spinal cord.
Myeloma
A malignant tumor of the bone marrow associated with the production of abnormal proteins.
Myelosuppression
A decrease in the production of red blood cells, platelets, and some white blood cells by the bone marrow.

N

Neoplasm
A new growth of tissue or cells; a tumor that is generally malignant.
Neutropenia
A decreased number of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell.
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
A cancer of the lymphatic system. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is related to Hodgkin's disease but is made up of different cell types. See Lymphoma.

O

OCN (Oncology certified nurse)
A registered nurse who has met the requirements and successfully completed a certification examination in oncology.
Oncologist
A doctor who specializes in oncology.
Oncology
The study and treatment of cancer. Doctors who specialize in oncology are called oncologists.
Oncology clinical nurse specialist
A registered nurse with a master's degree who specializes in the education and treatment of cancer patients.

P

Palliative treatment
Treatment aimed at the relief of pain and symptoms of disease but not intended to cure the disease.
Pap (Papanicolaou) smear
A test to detect cancer of the cervix.
Paracentesis
Removing fluid from the abdomen using local anesthesia and needle and syringe.
Pathological fracture
A break in a bone usually caused by cancer or some disease condition.
Pathology
The study of disease by the examination of tissues and body fluids under the microscope. A doctor who specializes in pathology is called a pathologist.
Petechiae
Tiny areas of bleeding under the skin, usually caused by a low platelet count.
Phlebitis
A painful inflammation of the veins.
Photosensitivity
Extreme sensitivity to the sun, leaving the patient prone to sunburns. This can be a side effect of some cancer drugs and radiation.
Placebo
An inert substance often used in clinical trials for comparison.
Platelet (Plt)
Cells in the blood that are responsible for clotting.
Platelet count
The number of platelets in a blood sample.
Polyp
A growth of tissue protruding into a body cavity, such as a nasal or rectal polyp. Polyps may be benign or malignant.
Port - Implanted
A catheter connected to a quarter-sized disc that is surgically placed just below the skin in the chest or abdomen. The tube is inserted into a large vein or artery directly into the bloodstream. Fluids, drugs, or blood products can be infused, and blood can be drawn through a needle that is stuck into the disc. Examples: Port-o-cath, Infusaport, Lifeport.
Port - Peritoneal
A catheter connected to a quarter-sized disc that is surgically placed in the abdomen. The catheter is inserted to deliver chemotherapy to the peritoneum (abdominal cavity).
Primary tumor
The original cancer site. For example, breast cancer that has spread to the bone is still called breast cancer.
Progesterone
One of the female hormones produced by the ovaries.
Progesterone-receptor assay
A test that determines if breast cancer is stimulated by the hormone progesterone.
Prognosis
The projected outcome of a disease; the life expectancy.
PSA (Prostate-specific antigen)
A marker used to determine prostate disease; it may be benign or malignant.
Prosthesis
Artificial replacement of a missing body part.
Protocol
A treatment plan.

R

Radiation therapy
X-ray treatment that damages or kills cancer cells.
Radiologist
A doctor who specializes in the use of x-rays to diagnose and treat disease.
Recurrence
The reappearance of a disease after a period of remission.
Red blood cells (Erythrocytes)
Cells in the blood that deliver oxygen to tissues and take carbon dioxide from them.
Red blood count (RBC)
The number of red blood cells seen in a blood sample.
Regression
The shrinkage of cancer growth.
Relapse
The reappearance of a disease after its apparent cessation.
Remission
Complete or partial disappearance of the signs and symptoms of disease.
Risk factor
Anything that increases a person's chances of developing cancer, for example, smoking and lung cancer.

S

Sarcoma
A malignant tumor of muscles or connective tissue such as bone and cartilage.
Chondrosarcoma
A malignant tumor of cartilage that usually occurs near the ends of the long bones.
Ewing's sarcoma
A malignant tumor starting in bone, affecting the bones of extremities. It often appears before the age of 20.
Shingles
See Herpes zoster.
Side effects
Secondary effects of drugs used for disease treatment.
Sigmoidoscopy
The visual examination of the rectum and lower colon using a tubular instrument called a sigmoidoscope.
Sputum
Secretions produced by the lungs.
Staging
Determination of extent of the cancer in the body.
Steroids
A type of hormone.
Stoma
An artificial opening between two cavities or between a cavity and the surface of the body.
Stomatitis
Temporary inflammation and soreness of the mouth.
Systemic disease
A disease that affects the entire body instead of a specific organ.

T

Taste alteration
A temporary change in taste perception.
Testicular self-examination (TSE)
A simple manual self-examination of the testes.
Thoracentesis (Pleural tap)
A procedure to remove fluids from the area between the two layers (pleura) covering the lung.
Thrombocytopenia
An abnormally low number of platelets (thrombocytes). If the platelet count is too low, bleeding could occur.
Tracheostomy
A surgical opening through the trachea in the neck to provide an artifical airway.
Tumor
An abnormal overgrowth of cells. Tumors can be either benign or malignant.

U

Ultrasound examination
The use of high frequency sound waves to aid in diagnosis.
Ureterostomy
A surgical procedure consisting of cutting the ureters from the bladder and connecting them to an opening (see Stoma) on the abdomen, allowing urine to flow into a collection bag.

V

Venipuncture
Puncturing a vein in order to obtain blood samples, to start an intravenous drip, or to give medication.
Vesicant
A medication or agent that may cause blistering.
Virus
A tiny infectious agent that is smaller than bacteria. The common cold is caused by a virus, and the herpes simplex virus causes cold sores.

W

White blood cells (WBC)
General term for a variety of cells responsible for fighting invading germs, infection, and allergy-causing agents. Specific white blood cells include granulocytes and lymphocytes.
White blood count (WBC)
The actual number of white blood cells seen in a blood sample.

X

X-ray
High-energy electromagnetic radiation used to diagnose and treat disease. Diagnostic test using high energy to visualize internal body organs. See Radiation therapy.


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