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): Refers to a cancer that arises from cells of glandular (secretory) tissue.

Adjuvant chemotherapy (Ah-jeu-vent): This refers to any therapy used after primary treatment to reduce the risk of the cancer recurring.

Adrenal gland tumours:  An adrenal gland tumour is 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 blood stream of patients that have testicular cancer.

Aggressive: In medical terms, aggressive means fast growing.

ALL: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia.

AML: Acute Myeloid Leukaemia.

Allogenic: This term is often used to describe a type of bone marrow transplant whereby cells are taken from a relative to give to the patient.

Alopecia (Ah-low-pee-sha): Loss of hair. Alopecia may be caused by taking certain drugs (cytotoxic 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: These are therapies that are used instead of medical treatment.

Anaemia (Ah-knee-mee-ah): Low red blood cell count

Analgesia: Pain killers.

Angiogenesis: The generation of 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 are carcinogenic when inhaled, 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.

Ataxia: Clumsiness, dizziness, lack of co-ordination

Atypical: Not normal or typical.

Autograft: This term is often used to describe a type of bone marrow transplant whereby the patient’s own cells are used in treatment.

Axillary: Meaning the armpit area.

BCC - Basal cell carcinoma: Refers to cancer that arises from cells at the base of the skin. The vast majority of basal cell carcinomas are slow growing and do not spread.

bd (or) bid: Medical notation for 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): A biopsy is a procedure that involves obtaining a tissue specimen for microscopic analysis to establish a precise diagnosis. It may be done using 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 but is non cancerous.

BRAC1 / BRAC2: Genes which, when damaged (mutated), places 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 temporarily implanted within or close to a tumour. 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 (Breast form): This is a term used to describe a breast prosthesis that may be worn inside your bra following breast surgery.

Ca125: This is a type of blood test most commonly used to monitor patients with ovarian cancer.

Ca153: This is a type of blood test most commonly used to monitor patients with breast cancer.

Ca199: This is a type of 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.

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

Carcinogens: A range of 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: This is a type of blood test most commonly used to monitor patients with bowel cancer.

Cellulitis: Inflammation of the skin.

Cervicalcheck: The National Cervical Screening Programme provides free smear tests to women aged 25 to 60. A smear test is a simple procedure that only takes minutes and is the most effective way to detect changes in the cells of the cervix.

Chemotherapy (Key-mow-therr-a-pee): Term used to describe giving medicine or drugs to treat an illness. Chemotherapy most often refers to anticancer drugs.

CIN (Sin) - Cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia: This is the name given to abnormal cells occurring in the cervix which are not cancerous but may lead to cancer if left untreated

CLL: Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia

Clinical trial: Clinical trials are 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): A colostomy is the term used to describe the opening formed by an operation where the open end of a part of the large bowel is diverted to the surface of the abdomen and secured there to form a new exit for waste matter.

Complementary therapies: These are therapies that complement current medical therapies but do not replace them.

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

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

Dietitian: A healthcare professional who focuses on nutrition.

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

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

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 which can increase a person’s risk of developing some types of lymphoma.

Erectile dysfunction (ED): Problems having an erection, this can be caused by some treatments for prostate cancer.

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.

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.

Financial support programmes:  The Irish Cancer Society's financial support programmes offer relief to families experiencing financial difficulty due to a cancer diagnosis.

Fractionation: This is the term used to describe 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: The procedure of 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.

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 cell surface receptor found to be over expressed in certain forms of aggressive breast cancer.

Hickman line: This is the name given to a special type of intravenous line that is inserted into a large vein in the neck. A Hickman line or catheter may stay in place for several months allowing drugs to be given or samples of blood to be drawn off.

Histopathology: Histopathology is the science concerned with the study of microscopic changes in diseased tissues.

HIV - Human immunodeficiency virus: Having HIV can increase your 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: Sometimes when cancer develops certain hormones stimulate the cancer cells to grow. Hormone therapies stop the hormone being released or prevent it 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: This is commonly 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 which 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 diverted to the surface of the abdomen and secured there to form a new exit for waste matter.

Immune system: The body’s defence against infection.

IMRT - Intensity-modulated radiotherapy: This advanced radiotherapy technique can shape the radiotherapy beams so that different doses of radiotherapy can be delivered to different areas.

Incidence: This refers to the frequency, or how often a cancer is diagnosed.

Inguinal (In-gyne-al): Refers to the groin region.

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

Intravenous (In-tra-veen-ee-us): Refers to the administration of medicine directly into a vein.

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

Laparoscopy: A minimally invasive surgical technique, where a small incision is made and a camera is used to direct surgery inside the body.

Lesion: Any pathological change in a tissue, sometimes cancerous.

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): This is the term used to describe a side-effect sometimes arising from the surgical removal of lymph nodes or damage to lymph channels caused by radiotherapy or surgery. With lymphoedema, fluid cannot drain effectively from the surrounding tissue, and this can cause swelling and discomfort.

Malignant (Ma-lig-nant): This term is used to describe cancer cells that are capable of invading 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: This refers to a meeting of lots of different types of healthcare professionals to discuss a patient's case.

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: Transition in a women’s body when her ovaries stop producing eggs and her body stops producing female hormones. Post-menopausal women can no longer have children.

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

Metastases (met-ass-tass-is): Also known as secondary tumours or mets, metastases are cancerous growths at sites distant from the main tumour, that have resulted due to cancer cells migrating.

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

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

Morbidity: This refers to the state of being ill or quality of life.

Mortality: This refers to 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: This refers to a group of disorders where the bone marrow does not function normally. Some myelodysplastic disorders can lead to the development of leukaemia.

Myelosuppression: This term refers to 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 which collects cancer statistics.

NCSS - National Cancer Screening Service: The service encompasses the national breast screening programme (Breast Check) and the national cervical screening programme (CervicalCheck). The NCSS is currently preparing for the introduction of a colorectal cancer screening programme.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy: This is chemotherapy given before surgery to reduce a large tumour so that it is more surgically manageable.

Neoplasm (Knee-o-plas-im): Term for a tumour which may be benign or cancerous.

Neuroendocrine tumours: These tumours are rare and occur in the endocrine system, including carcinoid 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. Your white blood cells can be affected by your cancer treatment, eg. chemotherapy.

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: One of the initiatives outlined in the Health Strategy to reduce long-term waiting lists.

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: Type of pain killer to treat moderate to severe pain. Opioids are sometimes referred to as narcotics.

Orthopaedic: To do with the bones.

OT - Occupational therapist: Healthcare professionals concerned with helping people with disabilities to achieve their maximum level of independence.

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

Palliative care (Pall-eee-at-ive): Treatment aimed at relieving symptoms and improving quality of life rather than cure.

Pathology: The study and diagnosis of diseases.

PE - Pulmonary embolism: A clot in the lung.

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.

Pelvic: In medical terms this refers to the lower part of your abdomen, between your hips.

Peripheral neuropathy: Peripheral neuropathy is damage to your peripheral nerves. The damage is mainly in the nerves to the hands and feet.

Petechiae (Pet-a-shay): Tiny hemorrhages from small blood vessels just beneath the skin surface. They appear when the blood count (platelet) is low.

PICC line - Peripherally inserted central catheter: A thin tube inserted into a vein in your arm that is guided all the way to a vein near your heart, called the vena cava. PICC lines are left in place for weeks or months and can be used to take blood samples and administer drugs and fluids.

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

Physiotherapist: A healthcare professional concerned with maximising a patient’s function and movement.

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

po - per oral: Medical abbreviation to indicate that a medicine is to be administered by mouth.

Progression: In medical terms this means that the cancer has spread.

Prosthesis (Pross-thee-sis): An artificial replacement.

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

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

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

Pulmonary: To do with the lungs.

qd: Medical notation for once per day.

qid: Medical notation for four times daily.

Radiation (Ray-dee-a-shone): Radiation is a term used to describe how energy may move through space. It may move by either electromagnetic radiation like X-rays, sunlight and gamma rays or by sub-atomic particles like protons, electrons or neutrons. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland (RPII) is responsible for regulating the use of ionising radiation in Ireland.

Radiofrequency ablation: A new type of cancer treatment that uses heat to destroy cancer cells.

Radiotherapy (Radio-therr-a-pee): The use of high-energy beams of radiation to treat cancer, as 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 released from granite deposits in certain geographical locations. Exposure to radon is associated with an increased risk of lung cancer. Radon can leak into buildings through the floor and may accumulate inside. Domestic radon emissions can be measured by contacting the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland.

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

Reccurance / 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: In medical terms this refers to 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: This is a type of 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: Refers to cancer that arises from cells close to the surface of the epithelium (layer of cells lining the exterior of an organ, eg skin).

SCLC: Small Cell Lung Cancer.

Secondary cancer: Also known as metastases or mets, secondary cancers are cancerous growths at sites distant from the main tumour, that have resulted due to cancer cells migrating.

Side-effect: A term commonly used to describe 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: This term is commonly used to describe a doctor who works in the hospital setting and specialises in a certain area of the body or disease.

Speech and language therapist: A healthcare professional that is concerned with speech and language difficulties.

Spinal cord compression: A medical emergency when the spinal cord is compressed by a tumour. It requires swift diagnosis and treatment to prevent long-term disability.

Staging: The process of assessing the size of a tumour and whether or not it has spread from its original site.

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

Stereotactic radiotherapy: This treatment 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: Stoma is a term commonly used to describe an opening, eg. a colostomy, an ileostomy, a urostomy and a tracheostomy.

Stomatitis: Inflammation of the tissues in the mouth.

Symptom: In medical terms a symptom is a sign that there is something wrong with a particular area of the body.

Targeted therapies: Targeted 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.

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

Thromocytopenia: Low number of platelets in the blood.

Topical: Refers to the surface of the body. Topical preparations or medicines usually come in ointment or cream form.

Travel2Care: Travel2Care is a transportation assistance fund which has been made available by the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) to patients travelling to the designated cancer care centres or approved satellite centre and is administered by the Irish Cancer Society.

Tumour: An excessive growth of cells resulting in an abnormal mass. A tumour may be either benign or cancerous.

Tumour lysis syndrome: A life-threatening emergency that can occur when a tumour breaks down very fast in response to treatment characterised by metabolic abnormalities.

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: The uncontrolled leakage of urine.

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

Urostomy (U-row-os-toe-me): This is the term used to describe the opening created by an operation, where the waste matter from the kidneys is diverted to the surface of the abdomen and secured there to form a new exit for waste matter (urine).

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

UVB: About 5% of radiation that reaches the earth’s surface is UVB. UVB penetrates into the epidermis. It is more dangerous to the skin and eyes than UVA. It burns your skin, causes skin cancer and eye damage. UVB is associated with the development of malignant melanoma.

Vaccines: A drug that causes the immune system to respond to an infection or tumour.

VEGF - Vascular endothelial growth factor: This is a protein produced in increased amounts by cancer cells to promote the growth of vascular tissue.

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 in which affected individuals are genetically disposed to develop certain types of tumours and cysts in multiple organs, most of which are benign.

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

XP - Xeroderma pigmentosum (Zero-derma, Pig-men-toe-sum): Individuals 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.