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Glossary

You may encounter new terms during your treatment. Our glossary will give you a better understanding of them.

Advance Directive: A legal document that tells the doctor and family what a patient wants for future medical care in the event that he or she becomes unable to make his or her own decisions. This may include whether to start or stop life-sustaining treatments. See also living will.

Advanced Practice Providers: Physician assistants, nurse practitioners, or clinical nurse specialists who provide many services in partnership with physicians, including assessment, diagnosis, developing and/or coordinating treatment plans, ordering diagnostic tests and labs, as well as prescribing medications.

Benign: A tumor that is not cancer or malignant.

Biopsy: A sample of tissue that is removed and examined by a pathologist to determine if cancer cells are present.

Bone Scan: A diagnostic imaging test to determine if the cancer has spread to the bones.

Brachytherapy: An internal radiation treatment. Radioactive seeds or pellets are placed directly into the tumor to destroy the cancer. It may also be called seed implantation.

Cancer: An abnormal group of cells that grows uncontrollably and spreads, if untreated, throughout the body.

Cancer Care Team: Healthcare professionals who work together to find, treat, and care for people with cancer. It may include: primary care physicians, pathologists, oncology specialists (medical oncologist, radiation oncologist), surgeons (including surgical specialists such as urologists, gynecologists, neurosurgeons, breast surgeons, etc.), nurses, oncology nurse specialists, oncology nurse navigator, advanced practice providers, and oncology social workers.

Cancer Cell: An abnormal cell that grows uncontrollably and has the potential to spread throughout the body.

Cancer-Related Fatigue: An unusual and persistent sense of tiredness associated with cancer or cancer treatments. It can be overwhelming and interfere with everyday life.

Carcinogen: A substance that causes cancer. For example, tobacco smoke contains many carcinogens that greatly increase the risk of lung cancer.

Catheter: A thin, flexible tube through which fluids enter or leave any part of the body. A catheter may be used to drain urine (also called a Foley catheter), or to deliver medications.

Cell: The basic unit of which all living things are made. Normal cells replace themselves by splitting and forming new cells (this process is called mitosis). When cancer is present, the process that controls the formation of new cells and the death of old cells is disrupted, thus leading to uncontrolled growth.

Chemotherapy: Medications used to treat or destroy cancer. It can be used either alone or with surgery or radiation. Often referred to as chemo.

Chimeric Antigen Receptor – T cell (CAR-T) Therapy:  A type of immunotherapy that uses genetically engineered immune T cells to recognize specific proteins on tumor cells then extracts, modifies, and replicates white blood cells to recognize and attack cancer cells.

Clinical Staging: By examining all diagnostic studies, biopsy or  pathology results, and through physical examination, the physician team will estimate the extent, or spread, of the cancer.

Clinical Trials: Research studies used to test new drugs or other treatments. They compare current and standard treatments with others that may or may not be better. Before a new treatment can be used on people, it is studied in a lab. If the lab study suggests the treatment will work, the next step is to test its value in patients. The main questions the researchers want to answer are:

  • Does the treatment work?
  • Does it work better than what we are currently using?
  • What side effects does it cause?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
  • Which patients are most likely to find this treatment beneficial?

Computed Tomography (CT): X-ray images of the body taken from many different angles. These images are combined by a computer to make cross-sectional pictures of internal organs. This is usually a painless procedure that can be done in an outpatient clinic, except for the injection of a dye (needed in some but not all cases). It is often referred to as a “CT” or “CAT” scan.

Conformal Radiation Therapy: This is a newer type of radiation treatment that utilizes a special computer which helps shape the beams of radiation to the shape of the tumor. It delivers the beams from different directions providing less radiation to healthy tissues.

Cryoablation: The process of using extreme cold to freeze and destroy cancer cells. This technique is also called cryosurgery.

CT Scan or CAT Scan: See computed tomography.

Diagnosis: To identify a disease by its signs or symptoms, by using imaging tests, physical exam, and laboratory findings.

Dietary Supplement: These are products such as a vitamins, minerals, or herbs. They are intended to improve health but not to diagnose, treat, or cure disease. Some supplements may interfere with your cancer treatment. Always discuss taking dietary supplements with your physician.

Dietitian/Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist: This is an expert in the area of food and diet. A registered dietitian (RD) has at least a bachelor’s degree and has passed a national competency exam. You may also see a nutritionist, but there are no educational requirements associated with this title.

Distant Cancer: Cancer that has spread far from its original location or primary site to distant organs or lymph nodes. This can be called a distant metastases. See also primary site.

Dosimetrist: Your care team member who plans and calculates the proper radiation dose for cancer treatment.

External Beam Radiation Therapy: External radiation is focused from a source outside the body on the area affected by the cancer. It is similar to getting a diagnostic X-ray, but for a longer time period.

Fatigue: An overall weakness or feeling of exhaustion.

Hormone: A chemical substance released by the endocrine glands such as the thyroid, adrenal, or ovaries, into the body. Hormones travel through the bloodstream and are responsible for various body functions. Testosterone and estrogen are examples of male and female hormones.

Hormone Therapy: This may be the administration of hormones or administration of drugs that prevent the body’s ability to produce hormones to control the growth of the cancer.

Hot Flush: This can be a sudden brief feeling of body warmth, along with flushing of the skin and sweating, common during menopause and hormone therapy. Also called hot flash.

Immune System: This is the complex system that protects the body from infection. It may also help the body fight some cancers.

Immunotherapy: An advanced form of cancer treatment that boosts the body’s own immune system to fight cancer; often used in combination with traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

Impotence: The inability to achieve or maintain an erection that is satisfactory for sexual performance.  Also called erectile dysfunction.

Incontinence: The inability to hold or control the flow of urine or bowel contents. Leakage of urine or feces.

Invasive Cancer: This is when cancer has spread beyond the layer of cells where it first developed and has grown into nearby tissues.

Lesion: Often used to describe a tumor, it is a change in body tissue. It can also be used to describe a change in the appearance or texture of skin, such as an open sore, scab, or discolored area.

Linear Accelerator: A type of machine that delivers external beam radiation.

Living Will: A legal document that allows a patient to decide what should be done if he or she becomes unable to make healthcare decisions. It is a type of advance directive. See also advance directive.

Lymph: The clear fluid that flows through the lymphatic vessels. It contains cells known as lymphocytes. These cells help to fight infection and may have a role in fighting cancer. See also lymphatic system, lymph node.

Lymph Node Biopsy: The test in which all or part of a lymph node is removed and examined under a microscope to find out if cancer has spread to the lymph node.

Lymph Nodes: These are small bean-shaped collections of immune system tissue, such as lymphocytes, found along lymphatic vessels. They remove cell waste, germs, and other harmful substances from lymph. See also lymph, lymphatic system.

Lymphatic System: The tissues and organs (including lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, and bone marrow) that produce and store lymphocytes. This includes the channels that carry the lymph fluid. Invasive cancers can sometimes spread (metastasize) through lymphatic vessels (channels) to lymph nodes.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): An imaging diagnostic test that uses a powerful magnet to send radio waves through the body. The images appear on a computer screen and appear similar to X-rays.

Malignant Tumor: A tumor or mass of cancer cells that invades surrounding tissues or spreads (metastasizes) to distant areas of the body.

Medical Oncologist: A physician who is specially trained to diagnose and treat cancer with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and other drugs.

Metastasize: The spread of cancer cells to one or more sites in the body, often by way of the lymph system or bloodstream.

Metastatic: Describes cancer that has spread from the primary site (where it started) to other structures or organs, either nearby and/or far away (distant).

Needle Biopsy: A procedure to remove fluid, cells, or tissue with a needle so that it can be looked at under a microscope. There are two types: fine needle aspiration (FNA) and a core biopsy. The FNA uses a thin needle to draw up (aspirate) fluid or small tissue fragments from a cyst or tumor. The core needle biopsy uses a larger needle to remove a cylindrical sample of tissue from the tumor.

Nurse Practitioner: A registered nurse with a master’s or doctoral degree. These licensed nurse practitioners diagnose and manage illness and disease, usually working closely with doctors.

Medical Oncologist: A physician specially trained to diagnose and treat cancer.

Oncology: The branch of medicine concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist: This is a registered nurse with a master’s degree in oncology nursing who specializes in the care of cancer patients. They may prepare and give treatments, monitor patients, prescribe and provide supportive care, and teach and counsel patients and their families.

Oncology Nurse Navigator: A nurse who specializes in the coordination of cancer care including patient education, psychosocial support, coordination of care, and acts as a point of contact for the cancer patient.

Oncology Social Worker: A master’s degreed professional in social work who is an expert in coordinating and providing nonmedical care to patients. They counsel and assist people with cancer and their  families, especially in dealing with the non-medical issues that can result from cancer, such as financial problems, housing (when treatments must be taken at a facility away from home), and child care.

Osteoporosis: The thinning of bone tissue that causes less bone mass and weaker bones. Osteoporosis can cause pain, deformity (especially of the spine), and broken bones. This condition is common among postmenopausal women and patients undergoing hormone therapy.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan: A PET scan is a type of imaging test that helps doctors see how the organs and tissues inside your body are functioning. The test involves injecting a very small dose of a radioactive chemical, called a radiotracer, into the vein of your arm. The tracer travels through the body and is absorbed by the organs and tissues being studied. Next, you will be asked to lie down on a flat examination table that is moved into the center of a PET scanner– doughnut-like shaped machine. This machine detects and records the energy given off by the tracer substance and, with the aid of a computer, this energy is converted into three-dimensional pictures.

Primary Site: The site where the cancer originated or first started growing. See also distant cancer.

Proton Therapy: Proton beam therapy is an advanced type of radiation therapy aimed at destroying cancerous cells using protons. The treatment offers submillimeter precision that delivers high-energy proton beams directly to tumors, minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Radiation Oncologist: This physician specializes in using radiation to treat cancer.

Radiation Therapist: This certified professional is trained to work the equipment that delivers radiation therapy.

Radiation Therapy: The process of treating cancer with highenergy rays (such as X-rays) to kill or shrink cancer cells. It can be external radiation, from outside the body, or internal radiation by placing radioactive materials directly in the tumor (brachytherapy). Radiation therapy has many uses including to shrink the cancer before surgery, to destroy any remaining cancer cells after surgery, or as the main treatment. It may also be used as palliative treatment for advanced cancer by treating bone metastasis.

Side Effects: Any unwanted effects of treatment such as hair loss caused by chemotherapy, and fatigue caused by radiation therapy.

Staging: By examining all diagnostic studies, biopsy or pathology results, and physical exam, the physician team will estimate the extent of or spread of the cancer.

Surgeon: A physician who operates or performs surgery.

Surgical Biopsy: The removal of tissues during surgery so that the tissues can be looked at under a microscope to determine if it contains cancer cells. Also called open surgical biopsy. Biopsies may also be done laparoscopically, or with thin surveillance needles. Symptom: These are changes in the body caused by an illness or condition, as described by the patient experiencing it.

Tissue: This is a collection of cells, united to perform a particular function.

Tumor: Refers to an abnormal lump or mass of tissue. Tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Ultrasound: A means of imaging in which high-frequency sound waves are used to outline a part of the body. These sound wave echoes are picked up and displayed on a television screen. Also called ultrasonography.

Watchful Waiting: Also called “active surveillance,” it simply means to have no treatment for a cancer. Instead the progression of the cancer is closely monitored.

X-rays: A form of radiation that when used at low levels, produces an image of the body on film, and at high levels it is used to destroy cancer cells.