Glossary of cancer terms

Abdominal: To do with the abdomen, the part of the body between the chest and the hips. Your abdomen contains organs such as your stomach, liver and intestines

Abnormal: Not normal

Acute: Occurring suddenly, or sharply over a short period of time

Adenocarcinoma (Add-inn-oh - car-sin-oh-ma): A cancer that arises from cells of glandular (secretory) tissue

Adjuvant  (Ah-jeu-vent): A therapy used after primary treatment to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back (recurring)

Adrenal gland tumours:  Cancer of your adrenal glands. Your adrenal glands are located above your kidneys. These glands make hormones that control important parts of your body such as your blood pressure and heart rate 

AFP - Alpha-fetoprotein: A protein that is sometimes present in the bloodstream of patients who have testicular cancer

Aggressive: Fast growing

ALL: Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia

Allogenic: A type of bone marrow transplant where cells are taken from a relative to give to the patient

Alopecia (Ah-low-pee-sha): Loss of hair. Alopecia may be caused by certain drugs. It may also be caused by radiotherapy to the head. If alopecia occurs because of treatment, the hair usually grows back when the treatment stops.

Alternative therapies: Therapies that are used instead of medical treatment.

AML: Acute myeloid leukaemia

Anaemia (Ah-knee-mee-ah): Low red blood cell count. This can make you feel tired, weak and breathless.

Analgesia: Painkillers

Angiogenesis: The growth of new blood vessels

Angiogenesis inhibitors: Anti-angiogenesis treatment is the use of drugs or other substances to stop tumours from developing new blood vessels. Without a blood supply, cancer cells cannot multiply and spread

Anorexia: Loss of appetite for food

Antibiotics: Drugs used to fight bacterial infections

Anticoagulants: Drugs used to thin the blood and prevent clots

Anti-emetics: Anti-sickness drugs

Antifungals: Drugs used to fight fungal infections

Anxiety: Feelings of fear, dread or uneasiness. Many cancer patients experience anxiety

Artery: Blood vessels that pump oxygenated blood away from the heart around the body

Asbestos (Ass-bess-toss): Asbestos is a naturally occurring silicate mineral that is mined for its heat-resistant properties. Certain asbestos fibres can cause cancer (carcinogenic) when breathed in, causing a cancer of the lining of the lung known as mesothelioma.

Ascites (Ah-site-ease): An abnormal build up of immunoglobulin (antibody) rich fluid in the abdomen (tummy)

Ataxia: Clumsiness, dizziness, lack of co-ordination

Atypical: Not normal or typical

Autograft: A type of bone marrow transplant where the patient’s own cells are used in treatment

Axillary: The armpit area

BCC - Basal cell carcinoma: Cancer that starts in cells at the base of the skin. The vast majority of basal cell carcinomas are slow growing and do not spread

bd (or) bid: A short way doctors and nurses write ‘twice a day’

Benign (Bee-nine): A non-cancerous growth. A growth of cells that do not spread to other tissues.

Biological therapies (targeted therapies): Biological therapies use substances that occur naturally in the body to destroy cancer cells. The main types of biological therapies are monoclonal antibodies, cancer growth inhibitors, angiogenesis inhibitors, gene therapy and vaccines

Biopsy (Buy-op-sea): Taking a sample of tissue, which is looked at under the microscope to give more information about cancer.  The sample may be taken with a needle or during surgery

Bone marrow: The soft, spongy tissue found in the centre of most large bones that produces white cells, red cells and platelets

Bone marrow transplant: A procedure to replace bone marrow that has been destroyed by cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy

Bone tumours: There are lots of different types of bone tumours including osteosarcoma, Ewing’s sarcoma, chondrosarcoma, spindle cell sarcoma, chordoma and angiosarcoma

BPH - Benign prostatic hyperplasia: A condition where the prostate gland grows abnormally large. It is not cancer

BRAC1 / BRAC2: Genes which, when damaged (mutated), place a woman at greater risk of developing breast and /or ovarian cancer, compared with women who do not have the mutation

Brachytherapy (Brake-eee-a-therapy):  A type of radiotherapy where radioactive pellets, wires or fine needles are put in or near a tumour and then removed. This is done to deliver the radiation directly to the tumour while minimising the damage to surrounding normal tissue

Brain tumours: There are lots of different types of brain tumours, the most common type are gliomas. Other common brain tumours in adults include astrocytomas, meningiomas and oligodendrogliomas. Common brain tumours in children include medulloblastomas, astrocytomas, ependymomas and brain stem gliomas

Breast Check: This is a government-funded programme providing breast screening to women aged 50– 64. The women are offered a free mammogram on an area-by-area basis every 2 years.

Breast prosthesis:  An artificial breast form that may be worn inside your bra following breast surgery 

Ca125: A blood test most commonly used to monitor patients with ovarian cancer

Ca153: A blood test most commonly used to monitor patients with breast cancer

Ca199: A blood test most commonly used to monitor patients with pancreatic cancer

Cachexia (Ka-hex-ee-ah): A profound state of general ill health characterised by malnutrition and loss of weight

Cancer growth inhibitors: Cancer cells need to communicate with each other to grow and multiply. They do this through a series of chemical reactions. Drugs called cancer growth inhibitors interrupt the communication process and in this way prevent the cancer from developing

Cannula A small tube put into a vein in your arm or on the back of your hand to give drugs. Also called a ‘drip’

Carcinogenic (Car-sin-o-jen-ick): Cancer causing

Carcinogens: Substances that are known to cause cancer including asbestos, ionising and UV radiation and tobacco

Carcinoma: Cancer that starts to grow in the skin or in the tissue that covers internal organs

Carcinoma in situ: Abnormal cells that have not spread from where they first developed. These cells sometimes develop into cancer

Cardiac: Relating to the heart

CEA - carcinoembryonic antigen: A type of blood test most commonly used to monitor patients with bowel cancer

Cellulitis: Inflammation of the skin

Central line A long, thin flexible tube passed through your skin and into a large vein in your chest, neck or groin

Cervical Check: The National Cervical Screening Programme. It provides free cervical screening tests to women aged 25 to 65. The test is a simple procedure that only takes minutes and is the most effective way to find people who may be at risk of cervical cancer

Chemotherapy (Key-mow-therr-a-pee): A treatment using drugs to kill cancer cells. It can be used to cure cancer or to slow down and control the growth of cancer

CIN (Sin) - Cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia:  Abnormal cells in the cervix, which are not cancerous but may lead to cancer if left untreated

CLL: Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia

Clinical trial: Research studies that try to find new or better ways of treating or diagnosing cancer or reducing side-effects

CML: Chronic myeloid leukaemia

Colostomy (Co-loss-toe-me): An opening formed by an operation where the open end of a part of the large bowel is brought to the surface of the abdomen (tummy). Waste matter (poo) comes out of the body through the opening and is collected in a bag

Complementary therapies: Treatments and activities you can have along with your medical treatment to try to feel as well as possible. For example, massage, counselling and meditation. They cannot treat or cure cancer, but they may help you to cope with your illness


Cycle: The day or days of your treatment, followed by a possible rest period, when you have no treatment and your body is recovering

Cyst: A non-cancerous growth, normally filled with fluid

Cytogenetics: The study of chromosomes in cells

Cytotoxic: A drug that can kill cancer cells and healthy cells


Daffodil Centres: Irish Cancer Society cancer resource centres staffed by nurses and volunteers in 13 hospitals across the country 

Depression: A mental health illness where the patient experiences feelings of sadness, despair and loss of interest in life

Dietitian: An expert on food and nutrition. They are trained to give advice on eating and artificial feeding during illness and use diet to help symptoms

Distress: An unpleasant emotional experience of a psychological, social, and / or spiritual nature that may interfere with the ability to cope with cancer

DNA: The genetic information inside cells

Dysfunction: Not working normally

Dysphasia: Difficulty speaking.

Dyspnoea: Difficulty breathing.

DVT - Deep venous thrombosis: A blood clot deep in a vein, normally in the leg

EGFR - Epidermal growth factor receptor: A protein found on the surface of some cancer cells

Endocrine: To do with hormones

Endocrine tumours: These tumours include pancreatic cancer, parathyroid gland tumours, pituitary gland tumours  and thyroid cancer

ENT: Ear, nose and throat

Epstein Barr virus: A virus that can increase a person’s risk of developing some types of lymphoma

Erectile dysfunction (ED): Problems getting or keeping an erection

FAP - Familial adenomatous polyposis: A genetic condition where hundreds or thousands of polyps develop in the large bowel (colon). If left untreated, they can develop into cancer. FAP is passed on between families (inherited) and it is very rare

.Fatigue: Ongoing tiredness, often not eased by rest

FBC - Full blood count: A measure of the number of platelets, red and white blood cells.

Fertility: The ability to have children

Fibroma: A benign (non-cancerous) tumour which consists of fibrous tissues or connective tissue

Fractionation: Giving radiation over a number of sessions (fractions), rather than one large dose during a single session.

Gastroenterology: To do with the digestive system

Genetics: The study of genes and heredity

Gene therapy: An experimental treatment that involves inserting a normal gene into a cancerous cell to kill the cell or to slow down the growth of cancer.

Grading: Examining a cancer cell under a microscope and finding out how slowly or quickly it will grow and spread

Gynaecology: To do with the female reproductive system

Haemangioblastoma: A rare type of tumour that develops from blood vessel cells

Haematology: The study of blood and blood disorders.

Haematologist (Heem-a-tol-a-gist): A doctor specialising in disorders of the blood including cancer

Haemoglobin: Red blood cells that carry oxygen around your body

HD / HL: Hodgkin Disease / Hodgkin Lymphoma

Helicobacter pylori: A bacteria which causes problems in the digestive system such as stomach ulcers. If left untreated, helicobacter pylori can increase your risk of stomach cancers

Hepatitis B & C virus: These are viruses that affect the liver and can increase your risk of liver cancer

Hereditary: Passed from parents to children through your genes

HER2 (Her-two) - Human epidermal growth factor receptor type 2: A receptor found on the surface of cells that is over-expressed in certain forms of aggressive breast cancer

Hickman line: A type of tube (line) inserted into a large vein in the neck. Drugs can be given through the line and it can be used to take blood samples. A Hickman line or catheter may stay in place for several months.

Histopathology: The study of microscopic changes in diseased tissues

HIV - Human immunodeficiency virus: A virus that can increase the risk of some types of lymphoma

HNPC - Hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer: This is a genetic condition that is passed on between families. It is also known as Lynch syndrome. People with HNPC can be at an increased risk for some cancers, such as bowel cancer

Hormonal therapy: Some hormones stimulate certain types of cancer cells to grow. Hormone therapies stop the hormone being released or prevent it from acting on the cancer cells.

HPV - Human papilloma virus: A virus responsible for the growth of soft wart-like growths on the genitalia. Certain types of HPV are linked with the development of cervical cancer. HPV is most commonly transmitted via sexual intercourse

HRT - Hormone replacement therapy: Hormones used to treat the symptoms of menopause.

Hyperfractionated: Radiotherapy given a number of times in smaller doses, rather than one large dose

Hyperplasia: Overgrowth of the cells of any tissue

Hypertrophy: An enlargement of the cells of any tissue

HSE - Health Service Executive: The organisation that runs all of the public health services in Ireland

Ileostomy ( ILL-ee-os-toe-me): An operation where the open end of a part of the small intestine (ileum) is brought to the surface of the abdomen (tummy). Waste matter (poo) exits the body through the opening and is collected in a bag

Immune system: The body’s defence against infection

Immunotherapy Drugs that help your immune system to work better to fight cancer cells

Implantable port A small round metal or plastic disc that sits under the skin on your upper chest or arm. It is connected to a tube, which leads to a large vein just above your heart. Also called a portacath

IMRT - Intensity-modulated radiotherapy: A type of radiotherapy that shapes the radiotherapy beams so that different doses of radiotherapy can be delivered to different areas.

Incidence: How often a cancer is diagnosed in a population

Inguinal (In-gyne-al): In the groin region

Inpatient: When a patient is admitted to hospital and has to stay overnight

Intravenous (In-tra-veen-ee-us): Giving medicine directly into a vein. Also called IV

Invasive cancer: Cancer that has grown beyond the tissues that it started in and has spread to surrounding healthy tissue

Laparoscopy: A type of surgery where a small cut (incision) is made and a camera is used to direct surgery inside the body

Lesion: Any change in a tissue caused by disease, including cancer

Li-Fraumeni syndrome: An inherited condition that can increase the risk of developing one or more types of cancer including breast cancer, brain cancer, osteosarcoma and other sarcomas

Lymphoedema (limp-fh-oh-dee-ma): Swelling and discomfort caused by a build-up of fluid, caused by removing lymph nodes or damage to lymph nodes. This can happen after lymph nodes are removed during surgery or if lymph channels are damaged by radiotherapy or surgery

Malignant (Ma-lig-nant): Cancer cells that can invade surrounding tissues and travelling to distant parts of the body

Margins: ‘Clear margins’ is a term surgeons often use to explain that the tissue they removed during surgery contains the cancer cells. This means the surgeon is happy that they removed all of the cancer

Mass: An abnormal growth that can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign)

MDT - Multi-disciplinary team meeting: A meeting of lots of different types of healthcare professionals to discuss a patient's case

Medical oncologist: A doctor who specialises in treating cancer patients with chemotherapy or other drugs

Memory loss: Some patients lose their memory because of their cancer or as a side-effect of their cancer treatment. Memory loss can be short or long term

Menopause: Period where a woman’s ovaries stop producing eggs and her body stops producing female hormones. After menopause, women can no longer have children

Mesothelioma (Me-soo-thee-lee-oma): A cancer of cells that line the lung, known as the pleura. It is often linked to exposure to a certain type of naturally occurring asbestos fibres

Metastases (met-ass-tass-is): Tumours that have spread from the first (primary) tumour into another part of the body. Also known as secondary tumours

Micrometastases: Cancer spread that may only be identified by using microscopy and / or pathological staining techniques

Monoclonal antibodies: Antibodies made in a laboratory. They aim to destroy some types of cancer cells while causing minimum damage to normal cells

Morbidity: The state of being ill or quality of life

Mortality: The number of deaths occurring in a particular time period

Multiple endocrine neoplasia 1 (MEN1)  / Multiple endocrine neoplasia 2 (MEN2): Rare genetic disorders of the endocrine system, which can increase your risk of developing endocrine cancers

Myelodysplasia: A group of disorders where the bone marrow does not work normally. Some myelodysplastic disorders can lead to the development of leukaemia

Myelosuppression: The effect that some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, have on the bone marrow

Nausea (Knaw-sea-ah): Feeling sick in your stomach

NCCP - National Cancer Control Programme: A programme within the HSE that controls cancer care in the public health system

NCRI - National Cancer Registry of Ireland: A registry that collects cancer statistics

NCSS - National Cancer Screening Service: The service encompasses the national breast screening programme (Breast Check), the national bowel screening programme (BowelScreen) and the national cervical screening programme (CervicalCheck).

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy: Chemotherapy given before surgery to reduce a large tumour so that it is easier to remove.

Neoplasm (Knee-o-plas-im): A tumour that may be benign (not cancer) or cancerous.

Neuroendocrine tumours (NETs): Rare tumours affect the endocrine system. Types of NET include carcinoid tumours and GEPs - gastroenteropancreatic tumours.

Neuro-oncology: To do with brain tumours

Neutropenia: A lower than normal amount of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell. This can lead to infection.

Night Nursing: The Irish Cancer Society provides a Night Nursing service for critically ill patients with cancer in their home. Night Nurses sit with the patient through the night, providing nursing care, practical support and reassurance.

NHL: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

NSAID: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

NSCLC: Non Small cell lung cancer

NTPF - National Treatment Purchase Fund: A scheme that pays for treatment in other countries, to reduce waiting times for treatment.

Oedema (Oh-dee-ma): Swelling caused by fluid

Oncologist (On-call-o-gist): A doctor specialising in treating cancer

Oncology (On-call-o-g ): The study of tumours or cancer.

opd: Medical notation for once per day

Opioid: A painkiller used to treat moderate to severe pain. Opioids are sometimes referred to as narcotics.

Oral To do with the mouth.

Orthopaedic: To do with the bones.

OT - Occupational therapist: A healthcare professional who helps patients recover and improve the skills they need for daily living and working.

Outpatient: Going to hospital for an appointment, test or treatment and going home afterwards.


Palliative care (Pall-eee-at-ive): Treatment given to improve symptoms of cancer, such as pain, pressure or bleeding, and improve quality of life.

Pathology: The study and diagnosis of diseases

PE - Pulmonary embolism: A clot in the lung.

Pelvic: The lower part of your abdomen (tummy area), between your hips.

Peripheral blood stem cell transplant: Blood is drawn from a patient and passed through a cell separator. This collects stem cells, and returns the rest of the blood back to the patient.

Peripheral neuropathy: Damage to the nerves, mainly in the hands and feet. It can cause pins and needles, pain and numbness.

Petechiae (Pet-a-shay): Bleeding from small blood vessels just beneath the skin surface. This can happen when the number of platelet cells in the blood is low.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT): Using laser or other light sources to destroy cancer cells.

Physiotherapist: A therapist who treats injury or illness with exercises and other physical treatments related to the illness.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT): Using laser or other light sources to destroy cancer cells.

PICC line - Peripherally inserted central catheter: A thin, flexible tube passed into a vein in your arm and tunnelled through until the end of the tube lies in a large vein near your heart. PICC lines can be left in place and used to take blood samples and give drugs and fluids.

Platelet: Tiny fragments of blood cells that help form clots and prevent bleeding

po - per oral: A short way for doctors to write that a medicine is taken by mouth.

Portacath See implantable port.

Progression: The cancer has grown. There is more disease now than before treatment.

Prosthesis (Pross-thee-sis): An artificial replacement. For example, a breast prosthesis is a breast form that you can wear in your bra if all or part of your breast has been removed.

Protocol: A treatment plan for how, when and what dose of treatment to give

PSA - Prostate specific antigen: A substance produced by the prostate. Men with prostate cancer tend to have higher levels of this protein in their blood.

Psycho-oncology: A specialty concerned with the psychological aspects of cancer for patients and their families.

Pulmonary: To do with the lungs.

qd: A way doctors and nurses write ‘once per day’.

qid: A way doctors and nurses write ‘four times daily’.

Radiofrequency ablation: Using heat to destroy cancer cells.

Radiotherapy (Radio-therr-a-pee): The use of high-energy beams of radiation to treat cancer. Cancer cells are more susceptible to damage by radiation than ordinary cells.

Radium: A naturally occurring radioactive element, no longer used in radiotherapy, as safer and more intense sources have been discovered.

Radon (Ray-don): A radioactive gas associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. If there is radon in an area it can leak into buildings through the floor and may build up inside. For more information on checking radon levels, see the Environmental Protection Agency website.

RBCs - Red blood cells: Blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen around the body via a network of veins and arteries.

Recurrence / Relapse: In medical terms this means that a cancer has come back.

Remission: A period of good health where there is no detectable evidence of cancer.

Renal: To do with the kidneys.

Resection: Surgery to remove tissue or part of an organ.

Response: Whether or not a cancer treatment is working, how well it is ‘responding’ to the treatment.

Respiratory: To do with the lungs and airways.

RLB - renal liver bone: A blood test commonly used to check the function of the liver, the kidneys and the bones. It is also referred to as an U&E.

SCC - Squamous cell carcinoma: A cancer that starts in cells close to the surface of the epithelium (layer of cells lining the exterior of an organ, e.g. skin).

SCLC: Small cell lung cancer.

Secondary cancer: Also known as metastases or mets, secondary cancers are cancerous growths away from the main tumour. Secondary cancer happens when cancer cells travel from where they started to another part of the body.

Side-effects: The effects a treatment has other than the effect it is intended to have.

Social worker: A healthcare professional concerned with the social needs of a patient.

Specialist: A doctor who specialises in a certain area of the body or disease.

Speech and language therapist: A healthcare professional who is helps with speech and language difficulties.

Spinal cord compression: A medical emergency when the spinal cord is compressed by a tumour. It needs to be diagnosed and treated quickly to prevent long-term disability.

Stable disease: The cancer has not grown or shrunk since starting treatment. The amount of disease has not changed.

Staging: Tests to see the size of a tumour and whether or not it has spread.

Stem cell: A cell responsible for the production of platelets, red and white blood cells.

Stereotactic radiotherapy: Stereotactic radiotherapy uses smaller radiation beams than standard radiotherapy. The beams are targeted at the tumour from several different angles, which combine to give a high dose of radiation to the tumour.

Stoma: An opening, e.g. a colostomy, an ileostomy, a urostomy or a tracheostomy.

Stomatitis: Inflammation of the tissues in the mouth.

Symptom: A sign that there is something wrong with a particular area of the body.

Targeted therapies: Drugs that target certain parts of cancer cells that make them different from normal cells. Types include monoclonal antibodies, cancer growth inhibitors and angiogenesis inhibitors.

Thorax / thoracic: To do with the chest, the area of the body between the head and the abdomen (tummy).

Thrombocytopenia: Low number of platelets in the blood.

Topical: Treatment that is used on the surface of the body. Topical preparations or medicines usually come in ointment or cream form.

Travel2Care: Travel2Care is a fund from the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) to help patients travelling to designated cancer care centres or approved satellite centres. It is administered by the Irish Cancer Society.

Tumour: An excessive growth of cells resulting in an abnormal lump (mass). A tumour can be cancerous or not cancerous (benign).

Tumour lysis syndrome: A life-threatening emergency that can happen when a tumour breaks down very fast in response to treatment. When the tumour breaks down it releases substances into the blood, which cause health problems.

Tumour marker: A substance sometimes found in an increased amount in the blood, other body fluids, or tissues and which may suggest the presence of some types of cancer. Also called biomarkers.

Urinary incontinence: Leaking pee (urine).

Urology: To do with urinary system, including the kidneys, bladder and prostate.

Urostomy (u-row-os-toe-me): An opening created by an operation on the surface of the abdomen (tummy). Urine (pee) exits from the body through the opening and is collected in a bag.

UVA:  UVA rays come from sunlight. Regular exposure to high doses UVA of can age your skin and cause skin cancer. About 95% of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the earth is UVA.

UVB:  UVB rays from the sun penetrate the skin’s outer layer (epidermis). UVB rays are more dangerous to the skin and eyes than UVA. UVB burns your skin, causes skin cancer and eye damage. UVB is associated with the development of melanoma skin cancer. About 5% of radiation that reaches the earth’s surface is UVB.

Vaccines: Drugs that cause the immune system to respond to an infection or tumour.

VEGF - Vascular endothelial growth factor: A protein produced in increased amounts by cancer cells to promote the growth of vascular tissue (that makes up blood vessels).

Vein: A blood vessel that carries blood from the body back to the heart.

VIN - Vulval intraepithelial neoplasia: A precancerous condition that can occur on the skin of the vulva.

VHL - Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome: VHL is a rare hereditary disease. People with VHL are more likely to develop certain types of tumours and cysts in multiple organs, because of their genes. Tumours are often benign (not cancer).

WBCs - White blood cells: Usually referred to as lymphocytes, they are responsible for fighting infection.

XP - Xeroderma pigmentosum (Zero-derma, Pig-men-toe-sum): People with XP are less able to repair damage caused to their skin by the sun's UV rays, and so have a high risk of developing skin cancers, including melanoma.