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Words To Describe Cancer and its Treatment

Written by Jane Donald on January 27, 2014. Posted in magazine article


Here are a few words about cancer that your family might need to know. You may want to explain them in a family meeting, so that all the children (and adults) know what you mean when you use these words. Be sure to check to find out if there are other words they’ve heard that they don’t understand. Also tell them who they should ask if they hear other words they don’t know. Older children can look up some of the words for themselves, but some of the more specialized medical terms may still be hard to understand.

Benign (be-nine): not cancer (see also cancermalignant).

Biopsy (by-op-see): a procedure that removes a piece of tissue from a person’s body so that a doctor can look at it under a microscope. This is done to see if a person has cancer and if so, what kind it is (see also tissue).

Cancer: a name for the more than 100 diseases in which cells that are not normal grow and divide quickly. These abnormal cells usually develop into a tumor (or mass or lump). Cancer can also spread to other parts of the body from where it started. Certain kinds of cancers can grow in places like the bone marrow, where they don’t make a tumor.

Chemotherapy (key-mo-THER-uh-pee); also called chemo: a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Common side effects of chemo include short-term hair loss, nausea and vomiting, mouth sores, feeling tired (fatigue), and a greater chance of getting infections. The kind of side effects a person has depends on the drugs they are getting. All chemo drugs do not cause the same side effects, and the same drug may cause somewhat different side effects in different people.

Clinical trials: research studies that are set up using human volunteers, to compare new cancer treatments with the standard or usual treatments.

Fatigue (fuh-teeg): a common symptom during cancer treatment, a bone-weary exhaustion that doesn’t get better with rest. For some, this can last for some time after treatment.

Malignant (muh-lig-nunt): cancerous. Malignancy is another word for cancer.

Metastasis (meh-tass-tuh-sis): The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. The plural is metastases(meh-tass-tuh-sees).

Oncologist (on-call-uh-jist): a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. There are medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists.

Prognosis (prog-no-sis): a prediction of the course of disease; the outlook for the chances of survival.

Protocol (pro-tuh-call): a detailed, standard plan that doctors follow when treating people with cancer.

Radiation therapy: a cancer treatment that uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. This treatment is given by a machine or by materials put in or near the tumor. The side effects of radiation therapy usually show up in the part of the body being treated. For example: reddening of the skin where the radiation is given, hair loss if the head is being treated, nausea if the stomach is being treated, and trouble swallowing and eating if the head and neck area is being treated. Tiredness (fatigue) is the most common side effect of radiation.

Recurrence: the return of cancer cells and signs of cancer after a remission (see also remission).

Relapse: the same as recurrence; cancer that has come back after a remission (see also remission).

Remission: the disappearance or reduction of cancer symptoms. Remissions can be partial or complete; but a complete remission means no sign of cancer is found on tests, scans, and physical exam. Also reported as “no evidence of cancer.”

Side effects: problems caused by cancer treatments or other medicines. Two people with the same cancer and even the same treatments may not have the same side effects. Your doctor can tell you what happens to most people, but cannot say for certain what will happen to you. Not having side effects does not mean that the treatment isn’t working. Tell your children what the doctor has told you, and promise to tell them if you start to feel the effects of the treatment.

Surgery: a procedure that usually involves cutting open part of the body. It is done by a doctor who is an expert in doing operations.

Tissue (tish-you): a collection of cells that work together to perform a certain job or function in the body. Different parts of the body, such as the skin, lungs, liver, or nerves can be called tissue. Tissue can be cancerous or normal. Doctors often biopsy tissue in a certain area to find out if it has cancer cells in it (see also malignantbenignbiopsy).

Tumor: an abnormal mass of tissue. Some tumors are cancer and some are not.

There will be other words that apply to your or your family member’s treatment that your child may want to learn. You can learn more about these words and what they mean on .