From angiogenesis to zoledronate: A primer on cancer jargon

Of all the challenges that may accompany a cancer diagnosis, learning a new vocabulary shouldn't be one of them.

Of all the challenges that may accompany a cancer diagnosis, learning a new vocabulary shouldn't be one of them. But cancer has a dictionary all its own—words and phrases you may never utter or hear if you or a loved one were not dealing with the disease. Health care professionals, who have spent their careers communicating in their own vocabulary, too often forget that patients and caregivers may not speak their language.

A 2008 study by the Medical College of Wisconsin concluded that "jargon is a barrier to effective patient-physician communication," and suggested practicing physicians and medical students be discouraged from using it. The study analyzed dozens of transcripts from consultations between doctors and cancer patients and concluded: "The large number of jargon words and low number of explanations suggest that many patients may not understand counseling about cancer screening tests." And last year, the 2015 Cancer Experience: A National Study of Patients and Caregivers found that less than half of the patients and caregivers surveyed understand terms like genomic testing, immunotherapy or molecular testing, and even fewer understood the benefits.

Speaking the patient's language

Cynthia Lynch, MD, a Medical Oncologist at our hospital near Phoenix, says switching gears from conversations with medical professionals to patients can be a challenge. "When a patient first comes into the room, I usually ask them, 'Tell me your understanding of things that are going on.' I want to hear their words, the terminology they are using, so I can best meet them where they are and take them to the next level of understanding," she says.

Words are often defined by the sum of their parts. Dissect a word, and you may interpret its meaning through suffixes and prefixes that have origins in ancient Greek and Latin—the languages of the medical lexicon. For instance, the prefix "onco" has origins in Greek (onkos, meaning growth or lump) and Latin (onco, meaning tumor). Therefore, we have oncologists, doctors who treat cancer, and oncogenes, genes with the potential to mutate and help cancer cells develop.

The 'oma' cancers

 The ancient Greek physician Galen is believed to be the first to use the suffix "oma" when referring to cancers, helping to define:

Melanoma, or cancer that develops in melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin, which give skin its color

Carcinoma, the most common form of cancer that usually forms in skin cells or in the lining of organs, such as the kidney or liver

Sarcoma, a tumor that grows in the body's connective tissue, such as muscles or bone

Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer

Common cancer terms

When researching cancer or discussing your condition with a doctor, you may come across some foreign terms. Below is a list of common terms in the oncologist’s medical dictionary:

Angiogenesis: This is the process of developing new blood vessels and a vital step in the development of tumors. Among targeted therapy drugs used to treat cancer are angiogenesis inhibitors, designed to prevent tumors from developing new blood supplies.

Apoptosis: When old or damaged cells end their lives in order to make room for new cells, the process is called apoptosis. Cancer cells evade apoptosis and grow unchecked when untreated or when treatment fails.

Metastasis: Cancer becomes metastatic, or spreads, when it travels and develops in another part of the body. Metastasized cancer is referred to by its origin. Metastasized breast cancer in the lungs, for example, is still considered breast cancer.

Palliative treatment: This term, often inaccurately used interchangeably with hospice care, is used to describe care that does not directly treat the disease, but focuses on improving quality of life, such as reducing pain and treating symptoms and side effects of cancer. 

Unresectable: Cancer that cannot be removed, or resected, by surgery is categorized as unresectable.

Zoledronate: Also called zoledronic acid, this is a drug used to treat bone disease. It is often given to cancer patients suffering from bone metastases or bone damage caused by other cancers.

Other resources

The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute websites offer extensive dictionaries to help the public interpret the alphabet soup of cancer jargon. But even before consulting the Internet, if you don't understand a word or phrase, experts recommend that you ask your doctor to explain the language to your satisfaction.

"Don't spend a lot of time stressing and searching for answers," Dr. Lynch says. "Make sure you have a provider you are comfortable with and can ask questions of. Reach out to your doctor, because a lot of times, things can be cleared up quickly."