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Medical Terminology

What is Cancer?

The body is made up of trillions of living cells. Normal body cells grow, divide into new cells, and die in an orderly way. During the early years of a person’s life, normal cells divide faster to allow the person to grow. After the person becomes an adult, most cells divide only to replace worn-out or dying cells or to repair injuries.

Cancer begins when cells in a part of the body start to grow out of control. There are many kinds of cancers, but they all start because of out-of-control growth of abnormal cells.

Cancer cell growth is different from normal cell growth. Instead of dying, cancer cells continue to grow and form new, abnormal cells. Cancer cells can also invade (grow into) other tissues, something that normal cells cannot do. Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell.

What is a Soft Tissue Sarcoma?

Most cancers are carcinomas. In contrast, sarcomas are uncommon and develop only from bones or certain other connective tissues, such as fat, muscle, nerves, fibrous tissues, blood vessels, or deep skin tissues. They can be found in any part of the body. Most of them develop in the arms or legs. They can also be found in the trunk, head and neck area, internal organs, and the area in back of the abdominal cavity (known as the retroperitoneum).

There are many types of soft tissue tumors, and not all of them are cancerous. When a tumor is not cancerous, it is called benign. When the term sarcoma is part of the name of a disease, it means the tumor is malignant (cancer). There are about 50 different types of soft tissue sarcomas (not all are listed here).

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers a guide to cancer terminology (of which there are 7,857 cancer terms).  The NCI Dictionary is a nice, easy-to-use resource that offers patients and their families assistance in being able to better comprehend medical articles that are read. Medical articles contain unfamiliar medical terminology that can be most challenging. To find medical/cancer terminology, look up terms in the NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms below:

MEDICAL TERMS – Terms that will help you interpret/understand some of the terminology contained in your own medical reports/test results, as well as published medical/research articles:


Abscess-  enclosed collection of puss in tissues, organs, or confined spaces in the body.  Its presence can be a sign of infection and is usually swollen or inflamed.

Chemo-sensitivity –  the susceptibility of tumor cells to the cell-killing effects of anti-cancer drugs.

Diffuse –  widely spread, not localized or confined.

 DVT – deep vein thrombosis, which is the formation of a blood clot in a deep vein or the leg or lower pelvis.  Symptoms may include pain,  swelling, warmth, and redness in the affected area .

 Early Stage Cancer –  cancer which is early in its growth and may not have spread to other parts of the body.  Early stage diagnoses vary between cancer types.

 Embolism –  blockage in the artery caused by blood clots or other substance such as cancer cells, infected tissue, or fat globules.


 Abdominal  X-ray – a type of radiation that passes through part of the torso onto film to create  images so a possible disease can be diagnosed.

Abdominal Ultrasound –  radiology exam / procedure using an ultrasound probe pressed against the skin of the abdomen.  High energy waves from the probe bounce off tissue and create echoes, which transfer to a computer to create an image – a sonogram or transabdominal ultrasound.

 Absolute Neutrophil Count – Neutrophils are white blood cells that help fight infection. Testing the number of white blood cells can reveal inflammation, infection, leukemia, and more.  A count less than 500 means there is a high risk of getting an infection.  Cancer treatment with chemotherapy can and usually does reduce the absolute neutrophil count – referred to on a blood panel result as:  “ANC.”

 B-Cell – a type of white blood cell that produces antibodies and is part of the immune system.  B-Cells  develop from stem cells in the bone marrow.  B-cells are also referred to as B lymphocytes.

 Cardiotoxicity –  toxicity affecting the heart that can be a side-effect after chemotherapy .

CAT Scan –   computer-aided tomography scan, also called a CT, creates three-dimensional images of organs and tissue through the use of a series of x-rays and sometimes with the use of injected dye (contrast). CTs are used to diagnose diseases or to monitor how well treatment is working.


 Abdominal resection –  surgical incision through the abdomen for tumor removal and lymph node removal if affected by the cancer.

 Ablation –  removal or destruction of a body part or tissue or its function, through surgery, hormones, drugs, radio-frequencies, heat, or other method described by the medical oncology team.

 ABV –  abbreviation for a combination cancer treatment of chemotherapy and radiation.  It includes chemotherapy drugs such as doxorubicin, Adriamycin, or dacarbazine.

 Adoptive cellular therapy –  treatment to help the immune system fight diseases/cancer, infections, and certain viruses.  T-Cells are collected from the patient and grown in a lab to increase T-cell numbers.  Then they are placed back into  the patient to boost the immune system.

 Adjuvant Therapy –  additional cancer treatment given after the primary treatment to lower the risk of  cancer recurrence.  Can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or biological therapy.

 Benign –  not cancerous / non malignant.  Benign growths do not spread to other body parts.

 Biopsy –  removal of cells or tissue for examination by a pathologist.  Samples of cells and tissues are referred to as biopsy specimens.

 Blood cell count / CBC (complete blood count) – reveals the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood.  The amount of hemoglobin (substance in the blood that carries oxygen) and the hematocrit (amount of whole blood that is made up of red blood cells) are measured.  A blood count helps diagnose and monitor many conditions that are going on in the body.

Blood thinner / anticoagulant – a substance that is used to prevent and treat blood clots in the blood vessels and the heart. Sometimes needed after certain chemotherapy treatments.

Chemo-radiation – combined chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Chemo-sensitivity –  the susceptibility of tumor cells to the cell-killing effects of anti-cancer drugs.

Darcarbazine –  chemotherapy agent that attaches to DNA in cells to kill cancer cells.

Differentiation –  describes how much or how little tissue looks like the normal tissue it came from.

Undifferentiated cancer cells –  grow and spread faster than well-differentiated cancer cells.  Differentiated is used in tumor grading systems –  different for each type of cancer system and type of cancer.


 Angiogenesis –  this is the term for blood vessel formation. Tumor angiogenesis is the growth of new blood vessels that tumors use to grow.  This process is caused by the release of chemicals by the tumor and cells near the tumor.

 Angiogenesis inhibitor –  drug substances that may prevent the growth of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow –  an anti-angiogenesis agent (drug treatment).

 Apoptosis –  a type of cell death (through molecular processes) used by the body to get rid of unneeded or abnormal cells.  It is another term for “programmed” cell death. This normal process of cellular death may be blocked by cancer cells.

 Biologic Drug Agent –  substance that is made from living organisms and is used in the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of cancer, and includes antibodies and vaccines.

 Biomarker /molecular marker / signature molecule –  a biological molecule found in blood, other body fluids, or tissues that provides a sign of a normal or abnormal processes of disease.  A biomarker may be used to see how the body will respond to treatment for cancer.

 Blinded study –  a type of study in which patients (single blinded) or the patients and their doctors  (double blinded) do not know which drug is being administered in a clinical trial. The opposite of a blinded study is an “open label” study.

 Cancer cell line –  cancer cells that keep dividing and growing over time in the lab.  Used in research to study the biology of cancer and to test cancer treatment for responsiveness.

 CAR T-Cell Therapy –  or Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-Cell Therapy –  the patient’s T cells (immune system cells) are changed in the lab to kill cancer cells.  Then the gene for a special receptor that binds to a certain protein on the cancer cells is added in the lab.  Large numbers of CAR T cells are grown in the lab and given to the patient by infusion.

 Chemo-immunotherapy –  chemotherapy combined with immunotherapy to kill cancer cells or slow cancer cell  growth; they  stimulate/restore the immune system to fight cancer.

 DNA –    the molecules inside cells that carry genetic information and pass it on from one generation to the next.

DNA Gene Expression Microarray – a process that allows thousands of pieces of DNA to be analyzed one at a time on glass slides.  Used to identify the genes in specific cells or tissue that are actively used to eventually make proteins.

 EGFR –  protein found on the surface of some cells, causing cells to divide.  Abnormally high levels are found on surface of cancer cells, causing excessive cell division.

EGFR Tyrosine Kinase Inhibitor –  blocks the EGFR protein from growing and dividing.

Epigenetics- the study of how age and exposure to environmental  factors, such as diet, exercise, drugs, and chemicals, may cause changes in the ways genes are switched on and off without the actual DNA sequence. These changes can affect a person’s risk of disease and may be passed from parents to their children.

 ER –  protein found inside the cells of the female reproductive tissue, other tissue, and cancer cells. It is a hormone estrogen receptor.

 Expanded Access / Compassionate Use Trial –  a way to provide an investigational therapy to a patient not eligible to receive therapy in a clinical trial, and there is no other treatment for the life-threatening state the person is in.  Called Compassionate Use Trial.