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
  • Carer - We use this to recognise anyone who is in the position of  supporting a young person. We acknowledge that some people might not have a strong parental or carer relationship (particularly if over 18) and want to highlight that you can always turn to your care team for support. 
  • 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 illness. Sometimes people think palliative care is only for people who aren’t expected to be cured, but really it’s any treatment that’s given to relieve symptoms – at any time during your care.
  • 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.