Cancer glossary

It’s not easy to get your head around all of the words used to talk about cancer, so here’s our guide to some of the most common ones.


  • Alopecia – The medical name for hair loss.
  • Anaemia – A condition, caused by a lack of red blood cells or a lack of haemoglobin in your red blood cells, which leaves you feeling totally worn out.
  • Anaesthetic – A drug used to stop you feeling pain. A local anaesthetic numbs a specific area. A general anaesthetic sends you to sleep before an operation.
  • Analgesic – The medical name for a painkiller.
  • Antibiotics – Drugs used to fight or prevent infection.
  • Anti-emetics – Drugs used to stop you being or feeling sick.
  • Aspiration – The removal of fluid from your body using a needle.


  • Benign – The medical term for a growth in your body that isn’t cancerous.
  • Biopsy – A procedure involving a small amount of tissue being taken from your body so cells can be studied under a microscope. Biopsies are done using an anaesthetic.
  • Blood count – The number of different blood cells (white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets) in your blood.
  • Blood transfusion – A process involving blood from a blood donor being given to you through an intravenous line.
  • Bone marrow – The soft, spongy stuff in your bones that creates blood cells.


  • Cancer – A general term for lots of different diseases, all of which are caused by cells not behaving normally.
  • Cannula - A flexible tube, inserted into a blood vessel in your lower arm or hand, so you can be given things like blood transfusions, medicines or anaesthetic
  • Carcinoma – The name given to types of cancer that start in your skin or in the tissues that cover your internal organs.
  • Care team - The group of people responsible for looking after you during cancer treatment. Your care team is part of your multidisciplinary team
  • Car-T Cell Therapy – A new type of immunotherapy that ‘trains’ your immune system’s cells to fight cancer
  • Catheter – A small tube that’s put into your body. Fluids are injected or removed through the tube.
  • Central line – A catheter that’s placed into a vein near your chest. It’s used to give you fluids and blood, and to take blood counts.
  • Chemotherapy – Often known as chemo, chemotherapy is a drug treatment used to kill off cancer cells.
  • Clinical trial – A type of medical research that involves studying the results treatments have on patients.
  • CT scan – It stands for computerised tomography and it’s also known as a CAT scan, but what you really need to know is that a CT scan takes x-rays from a lot of different angles to build up detailed images of your body.
  • Cytotoxic drugs – Drugs used to kill off cancer cells.


  • Diagnosis – The identification of a disease.
  • Donor – A person who donates blood, body tissue or organs to be used by another person.


  • External beam radiation – A type of radiation treatment. It’s ‘external’ because the radiation is targeted at the outside of your body. And it’s ‘beam radiation’ because a machine is used to create radiation beams that target cancerous cells.


  • Frozen section – A procedure involving body tissue being taken and then quickly frozen so it can be studied under a microscope.


  • General Practitioner - Or GP for short. Your GP is your normal doctor and was probably the person who referred you for cancer tests in the first place. There’s a good chance you’ll stay in touch with your GP throughout your treatment, as he or she can help you make decisions about things like where you want to be treated
  • Graft – Healthy tissue that’s taken either from a healthy part of your body or from someone else and then used to replace damaged tissue.


  • HPV – Stands for human papillomavirus. Some types of HPV are linked to certain cancers, including cervical cancer.
  • Haemoglobin – The part of red blood cells that transports oxygen around your body.
  • Haematology – The branch of medicine that focuses on blood. Doctors who specialise in blood are called haematologists.
  • Hormone – Chemicals that are released by glands in your body. They affect things like your growth, mood and energy levels.


  • Immune system – The cells and organs in your body that combine to protect you from illness.
  • Immuno-compromised – The medical term for a weakened immune system.
  • Infusion – The slow injection of drugs, blood and other fluids into your body.
  • Intravenous (IV) – Drugs, blood and other fluids that are given to you directly into a vein.


  • Leukaemia – The name given to various types of cancer that begin in your bone marrow and affect white blood cells.
  • Localised cancer – Cancer that hasn’t spread to other parts of your body.
  • Lumen - A narrow tube used to give you fluids. If you have a Hickman line fitted, it’s connected to lumens that hang outside your body and are covered in a sterile dressing.
  • Lymph – A clear fluid that flows through your lymphatic system and fights infection by collecting unwanted bacteria and viruses so they can be filtered out through your lymph nodes.
  • Lymphoma – The name given to various types of cancer that start in your lymphatic system.
  • Lymphatic system – A network of thin tubes that runs throughout your body, transporting lymph and fighting infection. It forms part of your immune system.
  • Lymph nodes – Glands, found in places like your groin, neck and armpits, that form part of your lymphatic system and help to fight infection by filtering out unwanted bacteria and viruses.


  • MRI scan - MRI scans are used to take cross-sectional pictures of your body and can show some types of tumour. 
  • Malignant - The medical name for a growth in your body that is cancerous and may spread.
  • Melanoma – A type of skin cancer that affects cells called melanocytes.
  • Metastasis – A secondary tumour caused by cells from a primary tumour spreading to another part of your body.


  • Oedema – Swelling caused by a build-up of fluid in your body.
  • Oncologist – A doctor who specialises in treating cancer.


  • Palliative care – Treatment designed to relieve the symptoms of cancer that can’t be cured.
  • Plasma – The part of your blood that transports blood cells and platelets around your body.
  • Platelets – The part of your blood that helps to stop bleeding by causing blood to clot.
  • Play specialists - Experts in helping children to play in ways that help them cope, deal with anxieties, make friends and keep developing during cancer treatment. Play specialists usually work on paediatric wards.
  • Primary cancer – The place where cancer begins. If cancer spreads to somewhere else in your body, it’s called secondary cancer.
  • Prognosis – The most likely outcome of a disease.
  • Prosthesis – An artificial replacement for a part of the body that has to be removed.
  • Proton beam therapy – A kind of external radiotherapy that targets cancer cells with particles called protons instead of x-rays.


  • Radiotherapy – A cancer treatment that works by targeting cancer cells using various types of radiation.
  • Radiation – A type of energy that can be used to damage and destroy cancer cells. X-rays are the main type of radiation used to treat cancer.
  • Red blood cells – The cells in your blood that contain haemoglobin, which transports oxygen around your body.
  • Relapse – The return of a disease, usually after treatment and a period of remission.
  • Remission – A period when the signs and symptoms of a disease are no longer evident.


  • Sarcoma – The name given to various types of cancer that start in your muscles, bones, nerves, cartilage, tendons, blood vessels or tissues.
  • Secondary cancer – A type of cancer that has spread from a primary cancer somewhere else in your body.
  • Side effects – Secondary, usually unpleasant, effects caused by medical treatments and drugs.
  • Stem cells – The cells, found in your bone marrow, that develop into blood cells.


  • Terminal – The medical term for a disease that can’t be cured.
  • Total body irradiation – A type of radiotherapy usually used to treat leukaemia that’s given to your whole body, rather than to a particular area of cancerous cells.
  • Tumour – An abnormal growth in your body.
  • Tumour marker – A substance produced by a tumour. It’s found in your blood and can help doctors understand how a tumour is behaving.


  • White blood cells – The cells in your blood that help to fight infection.