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Cancer Terms Defined for You
For other terms not listed here, refer to the Canadian Cancer Encyclopedia, a database of in-depth information on cancer risk, screening, diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care. The encyclopedia is maintained by the Canadian Cancer Society at

Adjuvant Therapy: This is a cancer treatment that is delivered after your tumor has been removed. It may be chemotherapy, hormones, radiation or a combination of these treatments. The radiation or chemotherapy would be called an adjuvant therapy.

Alopecia: The loss of hair from your head or your body.

Antiemetic: A drug that stops you from vomiting. It can also stop you from feeling nauseated.

Blood Count: The number of red cells, white cells and platelets in your blood.

Brachytherapy: Wires, seeds or needles that have a source of radiation inside them. These wires, seeds or needles are put into a cancer tumor, or into a place where a cancer tumor used to be. They are left there for a period of time.

Cancer: A disease where some cells in your body grow out of control. Cancer cells can destroy other cells in the body and spread to other parts of the body (metastasis). There are more than 100 kinds of cancer. Other terms for cancer are: carcinoma, malignancy and tumor.

Carcinoma: This is the most common type of cancer. It happens in cells inside the lung, intestines, bladder, breast, uterus, kidney and prostate, as well as in skin cells.

Carcinoma in situ: This is an early stage of cancer where the cancer cells have not moved into nearby parts of the body.

Chemotherapy: This is the use of chemicals as medication to treat cancer. It is often called chemo, for short.

Clinical trial: A clinical trial is a research study with cancer patients, to learn about new treatments and to find better ways of giving current treatments.

Cobalt 60: This is one kind of radiation treatment. Cobalt 60 contains high-energy gamma rays. These rays are sent to tumors deep inside the body, to destroy cancer cells.

Diagnosis: This is the process of finding out what the problem is. To get a diagnosis, a doctor will ask you how you feel, examine you, order lab tests, and order other tests as needed.

Dosimetry: This is the science of measuring the amount of radiation needed to treat cancer.

Hormone Therapy: This is the use of medications to treat some kinds of cancer that can affect the production or delivery of the naturally occurring hormones in our body.

Hormones: Some glands in your body produce a substance called hormones. These hormones are responsible for a number of functions, including growth, strength, and sexual drive.

Hospice: A home or a out-patient program that offers end-of-life care and support.

Immobilization Device: This is a piece of equipment to hold you in place during radiation treatments. In most cases, the equipment is made just for you.

Immune System: Your body’s defense system.

Immunotherapy: This is a treatment used to boost the immune system, and thus may be one way to treat certain cancers.

Injection: This is a needle or a “shot”. It allows fluids or medications to be put directly into your body. There are 3 ways to get an injection:
  • Under the skin (subcutaneous)
  • Into a muscle (intramuscular)
  • Into a vein (intravenous)
Intravenous (IV): This is a needle (or injection) that puts medications or fluids right into your vein. It is often called an “IV” for short.

Irradiation: This is another term for radiation treatment.

Linear Accelerator: This is a machine that is used in radiation treatment. (Commonly referred to as Linac) It uses high energy x-rays to treat cancer.

Malignancy: This word is the medical term used to refer to cancer.

Metastasis: This is when cancer cells in one place (the breast, for example), spread to other parts of the body such as the liver, bones, lungs or brain.

Neo-adjuvant Therapy: Therapy that is given to shrink the tumor before the primary treatment such as surgery or radiation.

Ortho voltage: This machine is used in radiation treatment. It treats cancers that are on the surface, or close to the surface of your body.

Palliative Care: The term used to refer to the phase of cancer treatment where cure is not feasible and primary focus of the health care team is on symptom management and quality of life.

Prognosis: Term that refers to the expected outcome of the disease process, including life expectancy.

Protocol: The generally accepted and proven effective specific drug regimes and other treatments that is the plan for treating a specific disease, such as cancer. Sometimes, this is referred to as a “treatment protocol”

R.A.M.Q.: Régie d’assurance maladie du Québec. (Quebec’s health insurance plan)

Radioactive Implant: See Brachytherapy.

Radiation Treatment (or therapy): This refers to the use of radiation to kill cancer cells. The most common kinds of radiation used are high energy x-rays, gamma rays and electrons.

Recurrence: The return of cancer after treatment.

Remission: The time when cancer is under control and you are free from signs and symptoms.

Simulator: This is a machine—usually a Computerized Tomography (CT) or Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner—that takes pictures of the cancer site and thus allows the healthcare team to best plan and direct the radiation treatment. You will have marks placed on your skin, with ink and tattoo dots. Sometimes the marks are put on an immobilization device (shell) that is placed around or next to your body.

Staging: This is a term used to describe the size and the degree of spread of the cancer in the body. Stage 1 is an early stage of cancer, when it is very small and localized to one area. Stages 2, 3 or 4 are more advanced cancers. Knowing the stage of the cancer helps doctors decide what treatment would be best for that patient and also to give a reliable prognosis (see above).

Tumor: This is a group of cells or lump that are not normal. If the cells are cancer cells, the tumor is called malignant. If the cells are not cancer cells, the tumor is called benign.
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