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June 1, 2017 | Cancer Center • Medical Oncology
In the world of cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery can be complex. You may be overwhelmed with the amount of new terms you hear your doctor talk about, and keeping track of everything can be difficult for some people.
Here is a basic overview of some terms you might hear when meeting with your oncologist and what they mean:
“Acute” and “chronic” are two terms used throughout the medical field for forms of diagnosis. “Acute” refers to symptoms that start and worsen quickly, but are not permanent and do not last over a long time. “Chronic” refers to a disease or condition that persists over a long period of time, often slowly. It can include pain or phases of diseases.
These are terms used to describe tumors in the body. “Benign” refers to tumors that are not cancerous. These tumors may grow, but they do not spread to other parts of the body. Benign tumors are also sometimes called “nonmalignant.”
“Malignant”, on the other hand, refers to cancerous tumors. Cells can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.
A “diagnosis” is the process of identifying a disease, condition or injury based on its signs and symptoms. Elements of a diagnosis might include health history, physical exams and various tests.
“Prognosis” may sound similar, but it’s not quite the same. Prognosis refers to the likely outcome or course of a disease, or the chance of recovery.
These are terms that relate to the source of the cancer. “Carcinoma” is cancer that starts in skin or tissues that cover the outsides of internal organs. “Sarcoma” is a cancer that develops in tissues like fat and muscle, which support and connect parts of the body.
“Remission” refers to a decrease in or disappearance of signs or symptoms of cancer. Remission can be either partial (i.e. some signs of cancer have disappeared, but not all) or complete (i.e. all signs have disappeared). However, remission does not mean all cancer has been completely removed from the body.
“Relapse”, on the other hand, refers to the return of a disease or its signs and symptoms, after a brief period of improvement such as remission. “Recurrence” is slightly different and more specific—it refers to cancer that has come back, usually after a period of time in which the cancer could not be detected. Cancer can return either in the same place as the original tumor or in a new place.
“Primary cancer” refers to the first time the body experiences a cancerous tumor. If cancer cells spread to other parts of the body, this is called “secondary cancer.” This process is called “metastasis”. Secondary cancers are the same kind of cancer as the original.
A “biopsy” is a procedure where a small amount of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope. Biopsies are the only tests that can make a definitive diagnosis of cancer, though there are others that can suggest cancer presence.
“Pathology” refers generally to various forms of cancer diagnosis and test interpretation. A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting lab tests and evaluating cells, tissues and organs to make a diagnosis.
Remember that it’s always okay to ask questions if you need clarification or find yourself confused with the influx of new information. Your healthcare provider can help you get answers to questions specific to your diagnosis.
*Note: No two cancer cases are alike. None of the statements herein are designed to suggest a “one size fits all” approach, and each case will be evaluated individually.
“Cancer Terms: Cancer Basics.” Cancer.net. http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/cancer-basics/cancer-terms-cancer-basics
“NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms.” National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms?cdrid=44702
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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.