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Cutting Through Cancer Lingo

Posted by Tri Vu, M.D. on May 27, 2017, 8:16:00 AM

As doctors, we sometimes forget that patients don’t speak the same language. We were trained to communicate using fancy medical terms, but it’s important for us all to remember that those terms can be intimidating and scary to our patients, especially when they’re dealing with something as overwhelming as cancer. 

I’ve compiled a list of some of the terms you may hear as you fight your way through cancer.

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Common Cancer Terms

Abscess: An enclosed collection of pus in tissues, organs or confined spaces in the body. 

Acute: Refers to symptoms that start and worsen quickly, but do not last over time. 

Biopsy: The removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. 

Brachytherapy: When a piece of radioactive material, such as a seed or a wire, is implanted inside the body at the tumor site to kill cancer cells with radiation. 

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

Chemoprevention: The use of natural, synthetic (made in a laboratory) or biologic (from a living source) substances to reverse, slow down, or prevent the development of cancer. 

Core Biopsy: The removal of a tissue sample with a wide needle for examination under a microscope. 

Dysplasia: Cells that look abnormal, but are not cancerous. 

Genetic Marker: A change in DNA that indicates an increased risk of developing a specific disease. 

Hyperplasia: Abnormally high number of cells in an organ or tissue. 

In situ: In place; refers to cancer that has not spread to nearby tissue, also called non-invasive cancer. 

Invasive cancer: Cancer that has spread outside the layer of tissue in which it started and has the potential to grow into other tissues or parts of the body. 

Localized cancer: Cancer that is confined to the area where it started and has not spread to other parts of the body. 

Metastasis: The spread of cancer from the place where the cancer began to another part of the body. 

Polyp: A growth of normal tissue that usually sticks out from the lining of an organ. 

Precancerous: Refers to cells that have the potential to become cancerous. 

Prognosis: Chance of recovery; a prediction of the outcome of a disease. 

Sarcoma: A cancer that develops in the tissues that support and connect the body, such as fat and muscle. 

Tumor Ablation: An image-guided technique that uses heat to destroy cancer cells. In radiofrequency ablation, imaging techniques such as ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are used to help guide a needle electrode into a cancerous tumor. 

Tumor Burden/Tumor Load: The number of cancer cells or amount of cancer in the body. 

Undifferentiated: Cancer cells that have changed a great deal from normal cells and tend to grow and spread very quickly. 

Ask for Clarification 

Don’t be intimidated by complicated medical terms. If you ever have a question about something your doctor says, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. This is your health and communication with your care team is pivotal to your treatment.


Dr. Tri Vu is a board-certified hematologist/oncologist at the Kelsey-Seybold Cancer Center at the Main Campus and Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center.


Topics: cancer terms, cancer terminology, cancer lingo, cancer definitions

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