Cancer Glossary: Words your family needs to know
There are some words about cancer that your family might need to know . You may want to explain these words in a family meeting, so that the children (and the adults, too!) know what you mean when you use them.
Be sure to ask your child if she’s been hearing any other words she doesn't understand. Also tell her who to ask if she hears other words she doesn't know. Older children can look up some of the words for themselves, but remember that some of the more specialized medical terms may not be in a standard dictionary.
Benign (“be-nine”): not cancer (see also cancer, malignant).
Biopsy (“by-op-see”): a procedure that removes a piece of tissue from a person's body so that a doctor can look at it under a microscope. This test is used to see if a person has cancer and what kind it is (see also tissue).
Cancer: a name for the more than a hundred diseases in which cells that are not normal grow and divide rapidly. These abnormal cells usually develop into a tumor (or mass or lump). Cancer can also spread from where it started to other parts of the body. Certain kinds of cancers can grow in places like the bone marrow, where they don't make a tumor.
Chemotherapy (“key-mo-THER-uh-pee”); also called chemo: a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Common side effects of chemo include short-term hair loss, upset stomach and vomiting, mouth sores, feeling tired (fatigue), and a greater chance of getting infections. The kind of side effects a person has depends on the drugs they are getting. Different chemo drugs may cause different side effects, and the same drug may cause different side effects in different people.
Clinical trials: research studies that compare new cancer treatments with the standard or usual treatments.
Fatigue (“fuh-teeg”): a common symptom during cancer treatment; a bone-weary tiredness that doesn't get better with rest. For some people, it can last for some time after treatment.
Malignant (“muh-lig-nunt”): another word for cancer.
Metastasis (“meh-tass-tuh-sis”): the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. The plural is metastases (“meh-tass-tuh-sees”).
Oncologist (“on-call-uh-jist”): a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. There are medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists.
Prognosis (“prog-no-sis”): a prediction of the course of disease; the outlook for the chances of survival.
Protocol (“pro-tuh-call”): a detailed, standard plan that doctors follow when treating people with cancer.
Radiation therapy: a treatment of cancer with high-energy rays that kill cancer cells. This treatment is given by a machine or by materials put in or near the body. The side effects of radiation therapy usually show up in the part of the body being treated. For example, reddening of the skin where the radiation is given, hair loss if the head is being treated, nausea if the stomach is being treated, and trouble swallowing and eating if the head and neck area is being treated. Tiredness (fatigue) is the most common side effect of radiation.
Recurrence: the return of cancer cells and signs of cancer after a remission.
Relapse: the same as recurrence; cancer that has come back after a remission.
Remission: the disappearance of cancer symptoms and cancer cells as a result of treatment.
Side effects: problems caused by cancer treatments. Two people with the same cancer and even the same treatments may not have the same side effects. Your doctor can tell you what happens to most people but can’t say for certain what will happen to you. Not having side effects doesn’t mean that the treatment isn’t working. Tell your children what the doctor has told you, and promise to tell them if you start to feel the effects of the treatment.
Surgery: a procedure done by a doctor who is an expert in doing operations.
Tissue (“tish-you”): a collection of cells that work together to perform a certain job or function in the body. Different parts of the body, such as the skin, lungs, liver, or nerves can be called tissue. Tissue can be cancerous or normal. Doctors often biopsy tissue in a certain area to find out if it has cancer cells in it (see also malignant, benign, biopsy).
Tumor (“too-mur”): an abnormal mass of tissue. Some tumors are cancer (malignant) and some aren’t (benign).
Here are some things you can say to explain cancer to a child:
- "The body is made up of lots of cells."
- "Cells are so small that you can only see them under a microscope."
- "Normal cells are healthy cells that keep our bodies working the way they should."
- "Cancer cells aren’t normal cells. They can affect how well our body works."
- "Cancer cells usually grow really fast. They get in the way of the normal cells."
- "A tumor is a lot of cancer cells that have grown together and are crowding out the normal cells."
You can also talk about treatments for cancer:
- "The tumor (or the cancer cells) shouldn’t be in my body. Because cancer can keep growing or spread to other parts of my body, I’m going to need treatment."
- "Doctors try to help people who have cancer tumors get rid of them in a few different ways."
- "Sometimes people with cancer can have an operation to take the tumor out of the body."
- "Sometimes people with cancer get radiation treatments. During radiation, a machine sends radioactive rays to the tumor that help get rid of the cancer cells."
- "Sometimes people with cancer get chemotherapy. During chemotherapy, special promotional products chemicals that kill cancer cells are put into the body. These chemicals can also hurt some healthy cells."
Use this conversation guide to get more tips for talking with your child about your cancer.
There are books that can help.
Some parents find that reading stories about cancer with their children makes it easier for them to talk about it. Check out some books that you may find helpful.