Cancer Vocabulary: A Primer on Cancer Terminology
Of all the challenges that can accompany a cancer diagnosis, learning a new vocabulary shouldn’t be one of them. But cancer has its own dictionary — words and phrases you may never speak or hear if you or a loved one are not dealing with the disease. Health professionals, who have spent their careers communicating using their own vocabulary, often forget that patients and caregivers may not speak their language.
A 2008 study from the Medical College of Wisconsin concluded that “terminology is a barrier to effective physician-patient communication” and suggested that GPs and medical students should discourage their use. The study analyzed dozens of consultation texts between physicians and cancer patients and concluded that: “The large amount of terms and the low number of interpretations suggest that many patients may not understand the advice for cancer screening tests.” And last year, the 2015 Cancer Trial: A National Study of Patients and Providers found that fewer than half of patients and caregivers surveyed understand terms such as genetic testing, immunotherapy or molecular testing, and even fewer understand the benefits.
Speak in the patient’s language
Cynthia Lynch, MD, a medical oncologist at our hospital near Phoenix says shifting the stream of conversations with medical professionals to patients can be challenging. “When a patient first enters the room, I usually ask him, ‘Tell me your understanding of the things that are going on. “I want to hear their words, and the terms they use, so I can better find them in their place and take them to the next level of understanding,” she says.
Words are often identified by the sum of their parts. Dissect a word and you will be able to interpret its meaning through suffixes and prefixes that have their origin in ancient Greek and Latin, the two languages of the medical lexicon. For example, the origin of the prefix “onco” is in Greek ( onkos , which means growth or mass) and Latin ( onko , which means tumor). So we have oncologists and doctors who treat cancer and oncogenes and genes that have the ability to mutate and help cancer cells develop.
It is believed that the ancient Greek physician Galen was the first to use the suffix “oma” when referring to cancers, which helped define:
Melanoma , or cancer that develops in melanocytes, the skin cells that make melanin, which gives skin its colour.
Carcinoma , the most common form of cancer that usually forms in skin cells or in the lining of organs, such as the kidneys or liver.
Sarcoma , a tumor that grows in the body’s connective tissue, such as muscle or bone
Glioblastoma , an aggressive form of brain cancer
Common Cancer Terms
When researching cancer or discussing your illness with a doctor, you may come across some foreign terms. Here is a list of common terms in the oncologist’s medical dictionary:
Angiogenesis: This is the process of developing new blood vessels and a vital step in tumor progression. Targeted therapy drugs used to treat cancer include angiogenesis inhibitors designed to prevent tumors from developing new blood supplies.
Apoptosis: When old or damaged cells end their life to make way for new cells, the process is called apoptosis. Cancer cells avoid programmed cell death and grow uncontrollably when left untreated or when treatment fails.
Metastasis : Cancer has metastasized or metastasized when it has metastasized and developed in another part of the body. Metastatic cancer is known by its origin. Breast cancer with metastases to the lungs, for example, is still considered breast cancer.
Palliative treatment , often incorrectly used interchangeably with palliative care, is used to describe care that does not directly treat disease, but instead focuses on improving quality of life, such as reducing pain and treating symptoms and side effects of cancer.
Unresectable: Cancer that cannot be removed or removed by surgery is classified as undetectable.
Zoledronate , also called zoledronic acid, is a drug used to treat bone diseases. It is often given to cancer patients who have bone metastases or bone damage caused by other cancers.
The websites of the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute offer extensive dictionaries to help the public interpret the alphabet of the cancer language. But even before you go online, if you don’t understand a word or phrase, experts recommend that you ask your doctor to explain the language in a way to your liking.
“Don’t waste too much time stressing and looking for answers,” says Dr. Lynch. “Make sure you have a provider that you feel comfortable with and that you can ask questions about. Call your doctor, because often, things can be cleared up quickly.”