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Glossary - Oncology

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Acute - severe; sharp; begins quickly.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) - a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood in which too many immature (not fully formed) lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, are found in the bone marrow, blood, spleen, liver, and other organs.

Acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) - a rapidly progressing cancer of the blood in which too many immature (not fully formed) granulocytes, a type of white blood cell, are found in the bone marrow and blood.

Adjuvant therapy - treatment used in addition to the main treatment. Adjuvant therapy usually refers to hormonal therapy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or immunotherapy added after surgery to increase the chances of curing the disease or minimizing symptoms.

Allogeneic bone marrow transplant - a procedure in which a person receives stem cells from a matched, compatible donor.

Alopecia - hair loss.

Alternative therapy - use of an unproven therapy instead of standard (proven) therapy.

Anemia - a blood disorder caused by a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin (the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells).

Anesthesia - the loss of feeling or sensation as a result of medications or gases. General anesthesia causes loss of consciousness. Local or regional anesthesia numbs only a certain area.

Anesthesiologist - a physician who specializes in administering medications or other agents that prevent or relieve pain, especially during surgery.

Angiogram - a dye is used to visualize all of the blood vessels in an organ such as the brain in order to detect certain types of tumors.

Apheresis - a procedure in which a patient's own blood is removed and particular fluid and cellular elements are extracted from the blood; it is then returned to the patient.

Aplastic anemia - one type of anemia that occurs when the bone marrow produces too few of all three types of blood cells: red cells, white cells, and platelets.

Autologous bone marrow transplant - a procedure in which a patient's own bone marrow is removed, treated with anticancer drugs or radiation, then returned to the patient.


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Benign - a term used to describe non-cancerous tumors which tend to grow slowly and do not spread.

Bilateral - on both sides of the body; for example, bilateral Wilms tumor is cancer in both kidneys.

Biologic response modifiers (also called biologic therapy) - substances that boost the body's immune system to fight against cancer (i.e., interferon).

Biopsy - a sample of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope.

Blasts - immature blood cells.

Blood - the life-maintaining fluid which is made up of plasma, red blood cells (erythrocytes), white blood cells (leukocytes), and platelets; blood circulates through the body's heart, arteries, veins, and capillaries; it carries away waste matter and carbon dioxide, and brings nourishment, electrolytes, hormones, vitamins, antibodies, heat, and oxygen to the tissues.

Blood banking - the process that takes place in the laboratory to ensure that the donated blood or blood products are safe, before they are used in blood transfusions and other medical procedures. Blood banking includes typing and cross matching the blood for transfusion and testing for infectious diseases.

Blood plasma - the fluid part of blood that contains nutrients, glucose, proteins, minerals, enzymes, and other substances.

Bone marrow - the soft, spongy tissue found inside bones. It is the medium for development and storage of about 95 percent of the body's blood cells.

Bone marrow aspiration and/or biopsy - a procedure that involves taking a small amount of bone marrow fluid (aspiration) and/or solid bone marrow tissue (called a core biopsy), usually from the back of the hip bones, to be examined for the number, size, and maturity of blood cells and/or abnormal cells.

Bone marrow transplant (BMT) - the transfusion of healthy bone marrow cells into a person, after their own unhealthy bone marrow has been eliminated.

Bone scans - pictures or X-rays taken of the bone after a dye has been injected that is absorbed by bone tissue. These are used to detect tumors and bone abnormalities.

Bone survey (skeletal) - an X-ray of all the bones of the body; often done when looking for metastasis (cancer spread) to the bones.


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CAM - Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Cancer - cancer is not just one disease but rather a group of more than 100 diseases. All forms of cancer cause cells in the body to change and grow out of control. Most types of cancer cells form a lump or mass called a tumor. The tumor can invade and destroy healthy tissue.

Cancer care team - the group of healthcare professionals who work together to find, treat, and care for people with cancer.

Cancer cell - a cell that divides and multiplies uncontrollably and has the potential to spread throughout the body, crowding out normal cells and tissue.

Carcinogen - an agent (chemical, physical, or viral) that causes cancer. Examples include tobacco smoke, sunlight, and asbestos.

Chemotherapy - a medication that can help fight cancer.

Chromosome - structures in our cells that carry genes, the basic units of heredity. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, one member of each pair inherited from the mother, the other from the father. Each chromosome can contain hundreds or thousands of individual genes.

Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) - a slowly progressing cancer of the blood in which too many white blood cells are produced in the bone marrow.

Clinical trial - a research study that compares many people from around the world with the same type of cancer and evaluates their treatment, side effects, and survival.

Complete blood count (CBC) - a measurement of size, number, and maturity of different blood cells in a specific volume of blood.

Complementary therapy - therapies used in addition to standard therapy.

Computed tomography scan (also called a CT or CAT scan) - a diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-rays and computer technology to produce horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body. A CT scan shows detailed images of any part of the body, including the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. CT scans are more detailed than general X-rays.


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Drug resistance - refers to the ability of cancer cells to become resistant to the effects of the chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer.

Dysplasia - abnormal development of tissue.

Dyspnea - difficulty or painful breathing.


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Edema - swelling due to buildup of fluid.


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Gene - a segment of DNA that codes for a trait such as blood type or eye color, as well as susceptibility to certain diseases.

Gene therapy - a new type of treatment that is used to correct a genetic defect.

Genetic counseling - providing an assessment of heritable risk factors and information to patients and their relatives concerning the consequences of a disorder, the probability of developing or transmitting it, and ways in which it can be prevented, treated, and managed. Genetic counseling is provided by a physician or nurse with specialized training in genetics, or by a genetic counselor.

Genetic testing - tests performed to determine if a person has certain gene changes (mutations) or chromosome changes which are either known to increase cancer risk or which may be present in cells from a tumor.

Germ cell - the reproductive cells of the body (ova, or eggs, and sperm)

Germ cell tumors - tumors which are comprised of germ cells (cells that develop into the reproductive system).

Grade - the grade of a cancer reflects how abnormal it looks under the microscope. There are several grading systems for different types of cancer.

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) - the condition that results when the immune cells of a transplant (usually of bone marrow) react against the tissues of the person receiving the transplant.

Granulocytes - a type of white blood cells. The different types of granulocytes include: basophils, eosinophils, and neutrophils.

Growth factors - a naturally occurring protein that causes cells to grow and divide.


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Hematocrit - the measurement of the percentage of red blood cells found in a specific volume of blood.

Hematologist - a physician who specializes in the functions and disorders of the blood.

Hematology - is the scientific study of blood and blood-forming tissues.

Hematopoiesis - the process of producing and developing new blood cells.

Hemoglobin - a type of protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen to the tissues of the body.

Hepatoblastoma - a cancer that originates in the liver.

Hodgkin disease - a type of lymphoma, a cancer in the lymphatic system; Hodgkin disease causes the cells in the lymphatic system to abnormally reproduce, eventually making the body less able to fight infection. Steady enlargement of lymph glands, spleen, and other lymphatic tissue occurs.

Hospice - literal meaning "a place of shelter." Today it refers to supportive care of a terminally ill patient.


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Imaging studies - methods used to produce a picture of internal body structures. Some imaging methods used to detect cancer include X-rays, CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and ultrasound.

Immune system - the system composed of lymph fluid, lymph nodes, the lymphatic system, and white blood cells that are responsible for protecting the body against infection and disease.

Immunosuppression - a state in which the ability of the body's immune system to respond is decreased. This condition may be present at birth, or it may be caused by certain infections (such as human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV), or by certain cancer therapies, such as cancer cell killing (cytotoxic) drugs, radiation, and bone marrow transplant.

Immunotherapy - treatments that promote or support the body's immune system response to a disease such as cancer.

Implant - a small amount of radioactive material placed in or near a cancer cell.

Informed consent - a legal document that explains a course of treatment, the risks, benefits, and possible alternatives; the process by which patients agree to treatment.

Intracranial pressure (ICP) - pressure caused by extra tissue or fluid in the brain.


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Leukemia - a cancer of the blood-forming tissue. Leukemic cells look different than normal cells and do not function properly.

Locally invasive - a tumor which can invade the tissues surrounding it by sending out "fingers" of cancerous cells into normal tissue.

Lumbar puncture - see spinal tap.

Lymph - part of the lymphatic system; a thin, clear fluid that circulates through the lymphatic vessels and carries blood cells that fight infection and disease.

Lymph nodes - part of the lymphatic system; bean-shaped organs, found in the underarm, groin, neck, and abdomen, that act as filters for the lymph fluid as it passes through them.

Lymph vessels - part of the lymphatic system; thin tubes that carry lymph fluid throughout the body.

Lymphangiogram (LAG) - an imaging study that can detect cancer cells or abnormalities in the lymphatic system and structures. It involves a dye being injected to the lymph system.

Lymphatic system - part of the immune system; includes lymph, ducts, organs, lymph vessels, lymphocytes, and lymph nodes, whose function is to produce and carry white blood cells to fight disease and infection.

Lymphocytes - a blood cell that is part of the lymphatic system; white blood cells that fight infection and disease.

Lymphocytic leukemia - a type of leukemia in which the cancer develops in the lymphocytes (lymphoid cells).


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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body.

Malignant - a term used to describe cancerous tumors which tend to grow rapidly, can invade and destroy nearby normal tissues, and can spread.

Medical oncologist - a physician who is specially trained to diagnose and treat cancer with chemotherapy and other medications.

Metastasis - the spread of tumor cells to other areas of the body.

Mucositis - inflammation of the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.

Mutation - a change in a gene.

Myelogenous leukemia - a type of leukemia in which the cancer develops in the granulocytes or monocytes (myeloid cells).

Myelogram - an X-ray of the spine, similar to an angiogram.

Myeloproliferative disorders - diseases in which the bone marrow produces too many of one of the three types of blood cells: red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all the tissues in the body; white blood cells, which fight infection; and platelets, which make blood clot.


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Nephrologist - a physician who specializes in diseases of the kidneys.

Neuroblastoma - cancer occurring in the nerve cells.

Neurosurgeon - a physician specializing in operations to treat disorders of the nervous system.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma - a type of lymphoma, a cancer in the lymphatic system; causes the cells in the lymphatic system to abnormally reproduce, eventually causing tumors to grow. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma cells can also spread to other organs.


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Oncogenes - genes that promote cell growth and duplication. These genes are normally present in all cells. But oncogenes may undergo changes (mutations) that activate them, causing cells to grow too quickly and form tumors.

Oncologist - a physician with special training in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Oncology - the branch of medicine concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Oncology clinical nurse specialist - a registered nurse with a Master's degree in oncology nursing who specializes in the care of cancer patients.

Oncology social worker - a health professional with a Master's degree in social work who is an expert in coordinating and providing non-medical care to patients.

Ophthalmologist - a physician who specializes in diseases of the eye.

Osteoid tissue - pre-bone tissue; resembling bone.

Osteosarcoma (also called osteogenic sarcoma) - cancer which affects the bone.


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P53 - a protein that is mutated in some types of tumors.

Pain specialist - oncologists, neurologists, anesthesiologists, neurosurgeons, and other physicians, nurses, or pharmacists who are experts in pain. A team of healthcare professionals may also be available to address issues of pain control.

Palliative treatment - treatment that relieves symptoms, such as pain or nausea, but is not expected to cure the disease. The main purpose is to improve the patient's quality of life.

Pathologist - a physician who specializes in diagnosis and classification of diseases by laboratory tests such as examination of tissue and cells under a microscope. The pathologist determines whether a tumor is benign or cancerous and, if cancerous, the exact cell type and grade.

Pediatric oncologist - a physician who specializes in cancers of children.

Pediatrician - a physician who specializes in the care of children.

Physical therapist - a health professional who uses exercises and other methods to restore or maintain the body's strength, mobility, and function.

Plasma - the watery, liquid part of the blood in which the red blood cells, the white blood cells, and platelets are suspended.

Platelet pheresis - a procedure to remove extra platelets from the blood.

Platelets - cells found in the blood that are needed to help the blood to clot in order to control bleeding; platelet transfusions are often used in the treatment of leukemia and other forms of cancer.

Pluripotent stem cell - the most primitive, undeveloped blood cell from which all other blood cells develop.

Primary site - the place where cancer begins. Primary cancer is named after the organ in which it starts. For example, cancer that starts in the kidney is always kidney cancer even if it spreads (metastasizes) to other organs such as bones or lungs.

Prognosis - a prediction of the course of disease; the outlook for the cure of the patient.

Protein - a large molecule made up of smaller units called amino acids. Proteins serve many vital functions within and outside of the cell. Genes code for, and make, proteins.

Protocol - a formal outline or plan, such as a description of what treatments a patient will receive and exactly when each should be given.

Pruritus - itching of the skin.


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Radiation oncologist - a physician who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer.

Radiation therapist - a professional specially trained to operate equipment that delivers radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy - treatment with high-energy rays (such as X-rays) to kill or shrink cancer cells. The radiation may come from outside of the body (external radiation) or from radioactive materials placed directly in the tumor (internal or implant radiation).

Radiologist - a physician with special training in diagnosing diseases by interpreting X-rays and other types of imaging studies, for example, CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging.

Red blood cells (also called erythrocytes or RBCs) - blood cells that mainly help transport oxygen to all the tissues in the body.

Regimen - a strict, regulated plan (such as diet, exercise, or other activity) designed to reach certain goals. In cancer treatment, a plan to treat cancer.

Relapse - reappearance of cancer after a disease-free period.

Remission - complete or partial disappearance of the signs and symptoms of cancer in response to treatment; the period during which a disease is under control. A remission may not be a cure.

Retinoblastoma - cancer of the retina (back of the eye).

Rhabdomyosarcoma - a cancerous tumor that originates in the soft tissues of the body such as muscle, tendons, and connective tissue.

Risk factor - anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease, such as cancer.


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Sarcoma - a malignant tumor growing from connective tissues, such as cartilage, fat, muscle, or bone.

Secondary tumor - a tumor that forms as a result of spread (metastasis) of cancer from the place where it started.

Side effects - unwanted effects of treatment such as hair loss caused by chemotherapy and fatigue caused by radiation therapy.

Spinal tap/lumbar puncture - a special needle is placed into the lower back, into the spinal canal. This is the area around the spinal cord. The pressure in the spinal canal and brain can then be measured. A small amount of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) can be removed and sent for testing to determine if there is an infection or other problems. CSF is the fluid that bathes your child's brain and spinal cord.

Staging - the process of determining whether cancer has spread and, if so, how far. There is more than one system for staging.

Stem cells - the blood cells that produce other blood cells. It is the stem cells that are needed in bone marrow transplantation.

Surgical oncologist - a physician who specializes in using surgery to treat cancer.

Syngeneic bone marrow transplant - an allogeneic transplant from an identical twin.


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Total parenteral nutrition (TPN) - people undergoing treatment for cancer sometimes need TPN to help meet their nutritional needs. TPN is a special mixture of glucose, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals that are given through an intravenous line (IV) into the veins. Many people call this "intravenous feedings."

Tumor - an abnormal lump or mass of tissue. Tumors can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Tumor suppressor genes - genes that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the appropriate time. Alterations of these genes can lead to too much cell growth and development of cancer.


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Ultrasound (also called sonography) - a diagnostic imaging technique which uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create images of blood vessels, tissues, and organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs as they function, and to assess blood flow through various vessels.

Umbilical cord blood transplant - a bone marrow transplant using stem cells from cord blood.

Unilateral - affecting one side of the body. For example, unilateral kidney cancer occurs in one kidney only.

Urologist - a physician who specializes in treating problems of the urinary tract in males and females.


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Ventricle peritoneal shunt (also called VP shunt) - used to drain excess fluid from around the brain in order to reduce pressure.


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White blood cells (also called leukocytes or WBCs) - blood cells involved in the destruction of viruses, bacteria, and fungi which cause infection.

Wilms tumor - A cancerous tumor originating in the cells of the kidney.


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X-ray - a diagnostic test which uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film.


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