Basic Cancer Terminology

Cancer Lingo: Basic Words To Understand

When you hear the word cancer you may already feel like someone isn’t speaking English to you, and it can get worse with some of the medical jargon being thrown around, especially if you don’t have a background in healthcare or medical science. It’s important to understand what’s going on with your health or your loved one’s health and you need answers. But if you don’t understand the words being used, how can you even begin to find the right questions, let alone cope with what’s happening? 

Here are some basics to help you navigate your journey. These examples may not be the exact discussion you have had with your doctor, but the words will most likely be similar and hopefully dissecting the parts will help you piece things together.

  1. Biopsy:  A biopsy is where they took a sample of your tissue and anything that is “atypical” is considered to be “abnormal.” 
  2. Atypical:  This word is a medical way of saying “abnormal.”  Doctors may use this word to describe cells or body tissues that look unusual under a microscope.
  3. Malignant:  The fact that something is malignant means that it’s cancerous, it would be nice to hear the word benign, which means that the tumor or mass is not cancerous, but that’s not always the case.  
  4. Remission is when there are no longer any signs or symptoms of cancer, but it does not mean the cancer has been cured.  
  5. Prognosis: A medical word for “outlook.”  It is used to talk about your chances for recovery, chance of disease returning, and what your doctor is expecting. 
  6. Metastasized:  Metastasized describes cancer which has spread beyond its organ of origin.
  7. Stage:  Cancer typically is given a stage from 1-4 in order to categorize the extent to which the cancer has spread, if at all.  Stage IV, the most severe, means the cancer has spread to organs distant from its organ of origin. 
  8. Grade:  How aggressive the cancer is, the higher the grade the more aggressive the cancer.  The Grade of the disease may be numeric (often 1-3) or the word “differentiated may be used, as in well differentiated (lower grade) or poorly differentiated (higher grade). Grade of disease and stage of disease are independent characteristics of the disease.  Grade 1 disease can be Stage 4 disease.

When you get a diagnosis, it’s important to learn the language, the language of cancer. It’s important to start educating yourself so that you can be the best advocate for your health that you can. You don’t need to have gone to medical school to fight cancer with strength, but knowing a little bit of the lingo can certainly help!

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