Managing Treatments

Medical Jargon 101: A Cheat Sheet for Common Cancer Terms

Medical terminology can be hard to understand, but this cheat sheet can help.

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer, you’ve likely heard many terms and phrases you’ve never heard before. You may feel confused and overwhelmed by the amount of information your care team is sharing, especially if complicated medical jargon is used in place of simple, easily understandable language.

While your healthcare team strives to communicate in the clearest way possible, cancer terms can still be difficult to understand at first. But it’s possible to gain a better understanding of your unique circumstances by knowing some common medical terms that your cancer care team is likely to use.

Your cancer care team works with your best interests in mind, so part of your cancer journey means receiving the education you need to make informed decisions about your care.

10 Common Cancer Terms

When discussing cancer, it’s important to have an understanding of some basic, but common, medical terminology you’re likely to hear. However, this list is not all-encompassing. If you have further questions or need something clarified, your doctor can help you come to a clearer understanding. Cancer.net also offers a comprehensive list of medical terms.

General Terms

  • Tumor A tumor is any mass that forms when cells within your body start to grow out of control. Tumors can be benign or malignant.
  • Benign — A benign tumor is noncancerous. Benign tumors do not spread into nearby tissues or other parts of the body.
  • Malignant — A malignant tumor is cancerous. Malignant tumors may spread to nearby tissues or other parts of the body.
  • Metastasis — Cancer that has spread from its original location to another part of the body is known as metastatic cancer. In some cases, cancer cells break off from the original, or primary, tumor and travel through the blood or lymphatic system to other organs and tissues. This is also known as stage IV cancer.

Treatment Terms

  • Prognosis — A prognosis is your outlook after cancer treatment, and describes your chance of recovery. Your prognosis is determined by many factors, including your specific type of cancer and your overall health.
  • Adjuvant therapy This type of therapy refers to the treatment you receive after your initial, main cancer treatment. Adjuvant therapy may help reduce the likelihood of your cancer coming back. In most cases, adjuvant therapies are given after surgery and include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and hormone therapy.
  • Targeted therapy This type of therapy refers to the type of treatment that focuses on, or targets, certain genes, proteins or other molecules inside cancer cells.

Legal Terms

  • Healthcare Power of Attorney (POA) This legal document allows someone other than yourself to make or communicate healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to do so.
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) This set of federal rules helps to protect your privacy as you undergo medical treatment. HIPAA laws govern the use and privacy of your personal information, help you gain access to your medical records and enable people with specific medical conditions, like cancer, to get health insurance for their family and themselves.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — This federal law provides specific protections for employees during their medical leave. This law also helps to protect employees when they take time off work to care for a loved one who is sick.

Medical terminology is often confusing, but knowing some basic cancer terms can help you prepare for and navigate through your treatment journey. If you don’t understand a term or phrase you hear, ask your healthcare team to explain what it means. You are a part of your cancer care team, and making sure you understand common cancer words and phrases is an important part of helping you recover.

If you have any questions during your treatment journey or need something clarified, UVA Cancer Center's patient educators are available to meet with you.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN