10 Cancer Terms You Should Know
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A Better Understanding Can Give You a Big Advantage

Medical terms can pile up quickly when you’re facing a serious condition like cancer, and without a good understanding, it’s natural to feel like you’re losing any control you might have had. Fortunately, you have the resources and ability to learn more about the cancer, and that can be empowering.

Knowing some common terms can also better prepare you for the road ahead, and form realistic goals to reach and celebrate. Begin with these common and crucial terms that describe the nature and behavior of cancer and cancer treatment.


Cancer can behave quite differently, depending on things like type, stage and grade. How any cancer progresses is a crucial part of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, especially as it metastasizes (spreads from the initial site to other areas of the body).

A metastasis occurs when cancer cells from the original tumor break away and travel through the blood or the lymphatic system to other organs often sprouting new tumors there. In general, metastases indicate stage IV cancer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean no treatment is available to you.

In Situ

In contrast to fast-traveling metastatic cancers, a cancer can remain localized and contained. The term in situ refers to a localized cancer that has not spread to surrounding tissues. Several types of breast cancer are classified as in situ.

Also called non-invasive cancer, in situ cancer is often easier to treat with precise methods; a cancer is said to be invasive when it has spread to the outside tissue and has the potential to grow into other parts of the body. Knowing how your cancer behaves is an important early step in diagnosis and formulating an appropriate treatment plan.


Sometimes a problem is spotted before it actually becomes cancer. Precancerous cells have the potential to become cancerous (malignant), thought they aren’t yet. There are many conditions that can qualify as pre-cancerous, from breast calcifications to Barrett’s oesophagus, and therefore they require close monitoring.

The good news is that, in many cases, precancerous conditions can be controlled and cancer avoided with an early diagnosis and careful treatment. In turn, it’s very important to report any suspicious symptoms to you doctor right away in order to catch a potentially dangerous condition before it becomes a life-threatening problem.


One of the most important diagnostic tools in an oncologist’s arsenal is the biopsy — removing a small sample of the affected tissue to inspect it more closely. A biopsy normally follows preliminary cancer tests, such as blood testing, X-rays and ultrasounds, and it is often the key to an accurate diagnosis.

In some cases, your doctor may just need to make a small incision to gather a tissue sample (incisional biopsy), or perhaps they need to remove a considerably larger piece of tissue or tumor (excisional biopsy).

When the lymph nodes or a deeper region of tissue is affected, a core biopsy may be a better choice, which uses a hollow needle to extract the sample.

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Complementary Therapy

Chemotherapy, radiation and pharmaceutical drugs are conventional cancer treatments; acupuncture, massage, herbal supplements and hypnosis are examples of complementary therapies. More patients and doctors are acknowledging the benefits of complementary cancer therapies, although the key is to use them as additions to, not replacements for traditional medical treatment.

The use of integrative medicine (that is, combing conventional and complementary treatments) is becoming the norm rather than the exception, and while physical therapies can’t cure the cancer itself, they can improve your quality of life, emotional state, and may even reduce your need for medication.


Cancer grade indicates how aggressive the cancer is. It differs from the stage of cancer, which points to how far the cancer has advanced.

When the cancerous tissue is inspected under a microscope, a doctor can tell how closely the tumor cells compare to normal cells, and whether the tumor is well-differentiated or poorly-differentiated. The closer the tumor cells resemble those in the surrounding normal tissue, the more likely the cancer is slow growing, and a lower grade is assigned.

In general, a lower grade of cancer is usually easier to treat, and more likely to be cured, than a higher grade of cancer. In certain types of cancer, like breast cancer, prostate cancer, and primary brain tumors, the grade is a very important piece of information when it comes to planning treatment.


The stage of cancer indicates how far it has progressed — an important factor in treatment and prognosis. Staging cancer is also vital for assessing clinical trials that may be appropriate for you, and it will help researchers interpret and share information about patients. The size, extent and spread of the cancer will determine its stage.

As soon as cancer is diagnosed, it is categorized into a stage using the widely accepted TNM system (which refers to tumor, nodes and metastasis). The original stage may be adjusted to reflect new information after a biopsy is taken, but once your medical team designates a stage, that won’t change over the course of your cancer treatment, even if your cancer progresses.

Imaging Studies

Certain electronic and magnetic imaging tools can provide a deeper look into affected tissue, and are extremely useful for cancer diagnosis. These tests use magnetic fields and radio eaves to penetrate your body, which are painless and safe.

The imaging methods most commonly used for cancer cases are X-rays, ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and CAT scans.

While imaging is an important diagnostic tool, it can also play a key role in determining the stage of cancer, tracking the development of cancer over time, and pinpointing precise locations of the tumors to help with surgical removal or radiation.

Primary Site

Regardless of where the cancer has spread, it’s vital to trace it back to its original location, where the first cell changes began. This is known as the primary site, and it is how every cancer is classified, even if it has metastasized.

Certain cancers follow specific patterns as they progress. For instance, lung cancer tends to move into the liver and the adrenal glands, while advancing breast cancer often spreads into the bones and lungs. The original tumor determines the kind of cancer, and therefore the kind of treatment that must be used, no matter where the secondary tumors are located.

Stem Cell Transplant

Stems cells exist in the bone marrow, where they grow into three types of blood cells: red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. In certain cancers, particularly cancers of the blood, introducing new stem cells to the body after chemotherapy or radiation treatments can help to rebuild the immune system and hopefully cure the cancer.

Stem cells can be collected from your own blood, or from a donor’s blood, and then stored until you need them. Typically, the transplant takes place after a high-dose treatment (when your natural immunity and blood count is depleted), to restore your healthy cell balance as soon as possible.

Cancer is a complicated disease, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with information. Try not to take in everything at once — you’ll overload your mind, ignite your worry, and probably miss lots of key facts anyway.

Write down your questions, and don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for clear answers and thorough explanations, but try to balance your information intake with relaxation and emotional nourishment. Any fight against cancer will take an equal measure of optimism, proactivity, and self-care along with a competent medical team.