Educational Cancer Terms



The terms and definitions were compiled by the 2005 Nursing Advisor Board of Pharmacia Inc.

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS): A viral disease that destroys the body’s ability to fight infections, leaving the body susceptible to many diseases.

Acute: A sudden onset of symptoms or disease.

Adenocarcinoma: 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.

A.F.P.: (Alpha feta protein) A tumor marker.

Alopecia: The loss of hair, which may include all body hair besides 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: A drug that prevents or controls nausea and vomiting.

Antifungal: 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/tissue from a specific area.

Autoimmunity: A condition in which the body’s immune system mistakenly fights and rejects body’s own tissue.

Axilla: The armpit.

Axillary nodes: Lymph nodes-also called lymph glands-found in the armpit (axilla).

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: A swelling or growth that is not cancerous, and does not spread from one part of the body to another.

(B-HCG): Beta Human Chorionic Gonadotropin

Biopsy: The surgical removal of tissue for microscopic examination of diagnosis.

Blood cells: Minute structures made in the bone marrow; 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 the bone marrow.

Bone marrow suppression: A decrease in the production number of blood cells.

Bone marrow transplant: The addition of bone marrow into a patient or who has been treated with high dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Patients may use their own marrow which has been frozen in some cases.

Allogeneic: The infusion of bone marrow from one individual (donor) to another.

Autologous: The infusion of a patient’s own bone marrow previously taken 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 is successful, and if affected bony areas are healing.

Breast self-examination (BSE): A manual examination of the breasts.

Bronchoscopy: The insertion of a flexible, lighted tube through the mouth into the lungs to examine the lungs and airways.

Cancer: A group of diseases in which malignant cells grow out of control and spread to other parts of the body.

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 kind of cancer that starts in the skin of 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 of airways.

Cervical carcinoma: A cancer of the cervice (part of the uterus opening).

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.

CA 125: Tumor marker.

Cardiomegaly: An enlargement of the heart.

CT/CAT 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. (Examples: Broviac, Groshong, Hickman, etc.)

Cervical nodes: Lymph nodes in the neck.

Chemotherapy: The treatment of cancer with drugs.

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 for looking at the color or large bowel through a lighted, flexible tube.

C.S.F.: (Colony Stimulating Factor) 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 and/or extremities (especially the legs). This occurs because the heart cannot pump the blood adequately.

CT scan (CAT scan): A test using computers and x-rays to create images of various parts of the body.

Cyst: An accumulation of fluid or semisolid material within a sac.

Cystitis: An inflammation of the bladder.

Drug-resistance: The result of cancer cells ability to resist the effects of a specific drug.

Dysphagia: Difficult swallowing.

Dyspnea: Difficult or painful breathing; shortness of breath.

Dysuria: Difficult or painful urination.

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 makes 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.

Erythryocyte: The red blood cell which carries oxygen to the 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.

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 then quick-frozen and examined under a microscope by a pathologist.

Granulocyte: A type of white blood cell that kills bacteria.

Groshong: See Central Venous Catheter.

Guaiac test: A test that checks for hidden blood in the stool.

Hematocrit (Hct): The percentage of red blood cells in the blood. A low hematocrit 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 a cold sore.

Herpes zoster: A virus which settles around certain nerves causing blisters, swelling and pain. This condition is also called shingles.

Hickman catheter: A special intravenous tubing that is surgically inserted into a large vein near the heart.

Hodgkin’s disease: A cancer that affects the lymph nodes. See Lymphoma.

Hormone: A substance that regulates growth, metabolism, and reproduction which is secreted by various organs in the body.

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.

Ileostomy: A surgical opening in the abdomen where the small intestine comes out to allow stool to be emptied into a collection bag.

Immunity (Immune system): The body’s ability to fight infections and disease.

Immunosuppression: Weakening of the immune system causing 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 blood stream over a period of time.

Injection: Pushing a medication into the body with the use of a syringe and needle.

Intramuscular (IM): Into the muscle.

Intravenous (IV): Into the vein.

Subcutaneous: The fatty tissue under the skin.

Interferon: A natural chemical released by the body in response to viral infections. Interferon can be artificially produced and used as a form of immunotherapy.

Interleukin: A natural or artificially produced chemical released by the body.

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 determine the different lymphomas by the type of cell that is involved in making up the tumor. Treatments depend on the type of cell that is seen.

Malignant tumor: A tumor made up of cancer cells of the type that would spread to other parts of the body. This type of tumor needs treatment.

Mammogram (Mammography): A low-dose x-ray of the breasts to determine whether abnormal growths or cysts are present.

Mastectomy: The surgical removal of the breast.

Segmental mastectomy (lumpectomy): Removal of the lump and a small amount of surrounding breast tissue.

Simple mastectomy (modified mastectomy): Removal of the entire breast.

Radical mastectomy: 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; such as breast cancer spreading 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 membrane): 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 in 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.

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 it is made up of different cell types. See Lymphoma.

OCN (Oncology Certified Nurse): A registered nurse who has met the requirements and successfully completed a certification exam.

Oncologist: A doctor who specializes in oncology.

Oncology: The study and treatment of cancer. Doctors who specialize in oncology are oncologists.

Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist: A registered nurse with a master’s degree who specializes in the education and treatment of cancer patients.

Palliative treatment: Treatment aimed at the relief of pain and symptoms of disease but is 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, a 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 due to a low platelet count.

Phlebitis: A painful inflammation of the vein.

Photosensitivity: Extreme sensitivity to the sun, leaving the patient prone to sunburns. Some cancer drugs and radiation have this side effect.

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. They 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 or blood drawn through a needle that is struck into the disc. Examples: Port-o-cath, Infusaport, Lifeport.

Port-Peritoneal: A catheter connected to a quarter size disc that is surgically placed in the abdomen. The catheter is inserted to deliver chemotherapy, to the peritoneal (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 female hormones.

Prognosis: The outcome of a disease; the life expectancy.

P.S.A. (Prostate Specific Antigen): A marker used to determine prostate disease- may be benign or malignant.

Prosthesis: Artificial replacement of a missing body part.

Protocol: The cancer treatment plan.

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 cancer after a period of remission.

Red blood cells (Erythrocyte): Cells in the blood that bring 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 cancer.

Remission: Complete or partial disappearance of the sign and symptoms of disease.

Risk factor: Anything that increases a persons chance of developing cancer, i.e. smoking, lung cancer.

Sarcoma: A malignant tumor of muscles or connective tissues such as bone and cartilage.

Chrondrosarcoma: A malignant tumor of cartilage usually occurring 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 cancer 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 hormones.

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 whole body instead of a special organ.

Taste alteration: A temporary change in taste perception.

Testicular self-examination (TSE): A simple manual exam of 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 platelets are too few, bleeding could occur.

Tracheostomy: A surgical opening through the trachea in the neck to provide an artificial airway.

Tumor: An abnormal overgrowth of cells. Tumors can either be benign or malignant.

Ultrasound examination: The use of high frequency sound waves for the purpose of 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.

Venipuncture: Puncturing the vein in order to obtain blood samples, to start an intravenous drip, or to give a medication.

Vesicant: An intravenous medication that, if leaked into tissues, could cause pain, swelling, tissue damage and destruction.

Virus: A tiny infectious agent that is smaller than bacteria. The common cold is caused by a virus. For example, herpes simplex (cold sore).

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

For a more complete list of types of cancers go to