Newly Diagnosed with Cancer: 10 Common Cancer-Related Terms

When is a tumor cancer? Why are lymph nodes biopsied? Can someone be cured of cancer?

You’ll likely hear a lot of words related to cancer but may not know what they mean. With the help of our Cancer Center physicians and the National Cancer Institute, we explain some of the more common cancer-related terms.

Please note: These terms are generalized for cancer as a whole, but there are some exceptions, so please check with a doctor about a specific cancer.


1. Response


Any improvement in tumor size or clinical response related to treatment. A patient is considered to be responding to treatment if their tumor shrinks or is no longer detectable or if the patient shows improvement in cancer-related symptoms. A response does not necessarily indicate a patient has been cured of their cancer.


2. Remission


Slightly different from response, remission means there has been a decrease (partial remission) or disappearance (complete remission) of cancer. Like response, a patient can be in remission, even complete remission, but not be cured. If a patient remains in complete remission or NED (see #3) for a certain period of time, depending on the cancer type, then the patient is considered cured.


3. No evidence of disease (NED)


A synonym for complete remission.


4. Malignant


A malignant tumor is cancer. Malignant cells can invade nearby tissue and are capable of spreading to other parts of the body. In contrast, a benign tumor is a growth of cells but is not malignant.


5. Metastasis


A cancer that has spread from one part of the body (its “primary” site) to another part of the body.


6. Lymph nodes


Part of the body’s immune system, lymph nodes are one of the earliest sites of spread for cancers. The sentinel lymph node(s), or the one(s) to which the cancer is most likely to spread first, is frequently removed and examined for the presence of cancer cells to determine if the cancer has begun to spread.


7. Immunotherapy


A therapy that uses immune system components to help the body fight cancer. These therapies typically stimulate or bolster the immune system, including vaccines that train the immune system to recognize and eliminate specific cancer cells, cytokines that function as hormones of the immune system and therapeutic immunochemicals such as antibodies.


8. Chemotherapy


A general term given to any therapy in which cancer-killing drugs are administered. In most cases, chemotherapy drugs target cancer cells, but often have side effects because they also target some normal cells.


9. Endocrine therapy


This therapy is not a true chemotherapy, in that the drugs prescribed to a patient do not directly kill cancer cells. Instead, the drugs block hormones that promote cancer cell growth, such as estrogen in breast cancer or androgen in prostate cancer. The drug is a decoy chemical that does not promote cell growth, and it blocks the true hormone from accessing the cancer cell.


10. Adjuvant therapy


Any treatment given after the primary treatment. For many solid tumors, the primary treatment is surgery, and the adjuvant therapy is radiation, chemotherapy, endocrine therapy, etc. These therapies work to destroy cancer cells that could be left behind after primary treatment.