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The Language of Cancer

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When a person hears the words “You Have Cancer,” it becomes clear soon after, that there is a whole lot of work to do. There are important conversations to have with your healthcare providers and treatment decisions that have to be made. But what do all these terms mean? Here are some simple explanations of terms to help guide you through the cancer maze.

The term cancer is used to describe over 100 different diseases. Cancer begins when a particular cell goes out of control. It changes in structure and function and continues to divide and grow and invade and damage nearby tissues. Some cells may even break away and spread to distant areas in the body. It might be helpful to gain some basic understanding of the different words and terms your healthcare provider might use when they talk about cancer.

The first term to understand is tumor. This term is used to mean literally an abnormal mass or swelling in the body. And you can’t tell very much about the characteristics of the tumor until someone looks at it under the microscope. Pathologists are put to task here when they look at the sample of tumor cells that was removed during a biopsy to decide if the tumor is benign or malignant. A benign tumor is a non-cancerous tumor while a malignant tumor is a cancerous tumor which can invade other tissues and organs.

The pathologist also looks to see how abnormal a malignant cell is as compared to a normal cell. This is called the tumor grade. This helps predicts how aggressive the cancer may be.

Another measure is called the stage of the cancer. This is a measure of how extensive the disease is or how much it has spread. It may also be used to guide treatment decisions. The stage is determined by blood tests, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), position emission tomography (PET) or other tests.

Most cancers have four stages:

  • Stage I—a tumor is localized, limited to the area where it started
  • Stage II—the disease has spread to the lymph node(s)
  • Stage III—cancer is locally advanced or has spread to nearby tissues
  • Stage IV—disease has metastasized, or has spread to distant tissues or organs

So as you embark on this journey, you will come across many unknowns, obstacles and accomplishments. You may start your cancer journey at the time of diagnosis, but this journey will continue as you become a survivor. The journey can be short or long but once diagnosed, individuals will be an “individual with cancer” or “a cancer survivor,” even if all signs and symptoms of cancer are gone. Still, cancer cells may still be in the body and constant vigilance will always be an order of business. And people with cancer and their family and friends will face many challenges along the way.

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About the Author


BA, MPH

Steve shares what he learned from his personal experience with cancer.

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