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Understanding cancer terminology

If you have cancer, you may hear the people treating you using lots of medical terms that you don’t understand. It may even sound like a foreign language at times. So we’ve put together a list of some common cancer terms with explanations of what they mean.


  • Adjuvant therapy Adjuvant therapy

    An adjuvant therapy is a treatment that you might have after your initial treatment for cancer, such as after surgery. It aims to lower the chance of your cancer coming back. Adjuvant therapies include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and biological therapy.

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  • Benign Benign

    Benign means your tumour isn’t cancerous. A benign tumour is made up of cells that are similar to normal ones. They usually grow quite slowly and don’t spread to other parts of your body. Benign tumours usually only cause problems if they grow very large, or press on other organs in your body. They can also affect you if they take up space inside your skull or release hormones that affect how your body works.

  • Biological therapy Biological therapy

    Biological therapy uses substances that act on cancer cells to stop them working normally, so they can’t grow or divide properly. Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that uses your immune system to work against cancer cells. There are several types of biological therapies, including monoclonal antibodies, cancer growth inhibitors, vaccines and gene therapy.

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  • Biopsy Biopsy

    A biopsy is a small sample of tissue that is taken from your tumour, either in surgery or using a needle. A histopathologist (see below) examines the sample under a microscope to see if it has any cancerous cells in it.

  • Carcinogen Carcinogen

    A carcinogen is something that is known to cause cancer. For example, tobacco smoke is a carcinogen that is known to cause lung cancer. However, not everybody who smokes gets lung cancer so there are other factors that can play a part. These may include your age, diet, genetic make-up and immune system.

  • Carcinoma Carcinoma

    A carcinoma is cancer that can occur in most tissues of your body, in the cells that line your internal organs or skin. Other types of cancer include sarcoma, which is a cancer that begins in your bones, cartilage, fat, muscle or other connective tissue. Leukaemia is cancer that starts in your blood cells. Lymphoma and myeloma are cancers that begin in the cells of your immune system.

  • Clinical oncologist Clinical oncologist

    A clinical oncologist is a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with methods other than surgery, and is trained to use both radiotherapy and chemotherapy. A medical oncologist specialises in treatment with medicines, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy and biological agents. Oncologists are likely to plan and supervise your overall treatment for cancer.

  • Histopathologist Histopathologist

    A histopathologist examines samples of tissue under a microscope to help diagnose diseases, such as cancer. They look for cancerous cells in a biopsy and help to plan any further tests and your treatment.

  • Hormonal therapy Hormonal therapy

    Hormonal therapy (sometimes known as endocrine therapy) can alter the production or activity of certain hormones in your body. Hormones help cells grow and are produced by glands in your body that make up what is called your endocrine system. Hormone therapy is mainly used to treat cancer when doctors think that hormones are causing the cancer cells to grow. These include breast cancer and prostate cancer. The type of hormonal therapy you have will depend on the type of cancer you have.

  • In situ In situ

    Carcinoma in situ is a term used to describe a cancer that is only present in the cells where it started. It hasn’t spread to anywhere else in your body.

  • Malignant Malignant

    Malignant means your tumour is cancerous. A malignant tumour is made up of cancerous cells. They usually grow faster than benign tumours and can spread into and destroy the tissue that surrounds them. A malignant tumour may spread to other parts of your body through your blood or lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that produce and store cells that fight infection and disease.

  • Melanoma Melanoma

    A melanoma is an overgrowth of the pigmented or dark cells in your skin, either in a mole or in normal looking skin. It’s the most serious form of skin cancer but can be cured if it’s found early.

  • Metastatic cancer Metastatic cancer

    Metastatic cancer is cancer that has spread from one part of your body to another. It’s also known as secondary cancer. The most common parts of your body that cancer may spread to are your bones, liver and lungs. To find out more, see our information on cancer staging and grading.

  • Neoadjuvant therapy Neoadjuvant therapy

    Neoadjuvant therapy is a treatment you have to prepare you for your main treatment, which is usually surgery. Neoadjuvant therapies include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy.

  • Neoplasm Neoplasm

    Neoplasm is another name for a tumour – a lump of cells which can either be benign or malignant.

  • Palliative care Palliative care

    If your cancer can’t be treated successfully, palliative care offers a support system to help you and your family. This can help you manage symptoms caused by cancer, for example easing any pain, as well as aiming to improve your overall quality of life.

  • Primary cancer Primary cancer

    Primary cancer is where your cancer originally started. If your cancer has spread, this is known as secondary cancer. For example, lung cancer that has spread to your liver is primary lung cancer with secondary cancer in your liver.

  • Prognosis Prognosis

    Your prognosis is the likely result of your cancer. It could refer to your chance of recovery or the risk of the cancer coming back.

  • Remission Remission

    If your cancer is in remission, its signs and symptoms have either improved or disappeared. Cancer can be in complete or partial remission. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of your cancer have gone. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms have gone.

  • Staging Staging

    Staging describes the size of your tumour and how far it has spread within your body. This can help your doctor plan your treatment.

  • Systemic therapy Systemic therapy

    Systemic therapy is a treatment that reaches your whole body. Systemic therapy is usually in the form of chemotherapy, biological therapy or hormonal therapy.

  • Targeted therapy Targeted therapy

    Targeted therapy is a medicine that can block the growth and spread of cancer. It does this by interfering with how cancer cells grow.

  • Tumour Tumour

    A tumour is a word for a lump of cells that can either be benign or malignant. A tumour is also known as a neoplasm.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • NCI dictionary of cancer terms. National Cancer Institute., accessed 26 August 2014
    • Glossary of cancer terms. Office for National Statistics., published 12 January 2012
    • Benign and malignant soft tissue tumors. Medscape., published 29 May 2012
    • Pituitary tumours. PatientPlus., reviewed 29 April 2014
    • Histopathology. The Royal College of Pathologists., accessed 26 August 2014
    • Glossary. Cancer Australia., published 28 January 2014
    • Non-small cell lung cancer. Medscape., published 6 June 2014
    • A guide for patients with advanced cancer. European Society for Medical Oncology., published 2011
    • Medical oncology. Medical Careers., accessed 27 August 2014
    • Medical oncology. Royal College of Physicians., accessed 27 August 2014
    • Malignant melanoma. Medscape., published 10 April 2014
    • Metastatic cancer. National Cancer Institute., published 28 March 2013
    • Opioids in palliative care: safe and effective prescribing of strong opioids for pain in palliative care of adults. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), May 2012.
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    Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Content Team, November 2014.

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