Quick guide to top oncology terminology

New approaches to diagnosing and treating cancer are being discovered and implemented every year. The rapid evolution of terminology and new treatment concepts can be daunting for those not working directly in the medical or research fields. We have compiled the following list of cancer terms that patients, advocates, non-medical journalists and others might find useful.

1. Cancer Stem Cells1 – Many scientists believe that every cancer has a limited number of cells that are driving and sustaining the cancer. These cells act as stem cells which can keep the cancer going over the long term. For this reason, many scientists are interested in understanding and targeting cancer stem cells for future treatments.

For More Information: Stanford Medicine Center

2. Metastatic Cancer2Cancer sometimes spreads to other locations in the body, away from the original location of the tumour, and forms additional tumours (metastases). As metastatic tumours have the same cell types as the primary tumour, such as expression of the same proteins or presence of specific chromosome changes, the name of the cancer type remains the same. For example, breast cancer that spreads to the lungs and forms a tumour is named metastatic breast cancer, rather than lung cancer.

For More Information: National Cancer Institute

3. Mutations3,4A cancer mutation is defined by changes in the DNA sequence of a cell. These mutations may be a result of abnormalities during cell division, exposure to ionizing radiation, exposure to DNA-damaging agents in the environment or infections by viruses. Whilst some genes are damaged every day with little effect, over time a damaged cell may divide and grow to form a tumour large enough to cause symptoms.     

For More Information: National Human Genome Research Institute; Cancer Research UK

4. Immuno-Oncology5 – Using a person’s own immune system, or components of the immune system, to fight cancer is not a new idea, though this area of cancer research has increased in recent years and has received significant media attention. Immuno-oncology can involve stimulating a person’s own immune system to attack cancer cells, or creating therapies using immune system components, like antibodies, to help the body fight off cancer.

For More Information: American Cancer Society

5. Personalized Healthcare6,7 – Each individual’s cancer has a unique set of genetic information and every tumour has its own set of mutations and genetic alterations. As we understand and can test for more of these changes, we will be better able to fit a person’s cancer treatment to the characteristics of their tumour. This idea of tailored treatment for each patient’s cancer is the goal of precision medicine.

For More Information: National Cancer InstituteCancer.Net

6. PathologyPathology is the science of interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues and organs to diagnose disease. Frequently cancer patients have biopsies taken and these tumour cells are examined by a pathologist to determine several important aspects of the disease. These include whether the tumour is benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous), histologic grade (degree of differentiation between healthy and cancerous cells), and whether the tumour is invasive (has metastasised) or noninvasive (remaining only at the original tumour location).

For More Information: Cancer.Net

7. Epigenetics9 – There is more than just DNA inside a cancer cell. We know that the genome of a tumour (DNA) is important, but how that DNA gets turned on and off matters too. DNA is the blueprint for what goes on in the cell. Epigenetics helps us figure out how those blueprints are turned into cancer cells and tumours. As we understand more about how the cancer cells turn on and off sections of their genome, new targets for cancer therapy are emerging.

For More Information: Keystone Symposia

8. Resistance10 – Similar to how bacterial cells can be resistant to antibiotics, cancer cells can become resistant to cancer therapies. This resistance can be present prior to treatment or can result from mutations in the cancer’s genome acquired during treatment.

For More Information: Annual Review of Medicine, Mechanisms of Cancer Drug Resistance

9. Adjuvant/Neoadjuvant Therapy11 – After receiving primary therapy, cancer patients are often given a second type of therapy, known as an adjuvant therapy, to increase the chance of long-term disease free survival by killing any remaining cancer cells that might have escaped treatment by the primary therapy. When treatment is given before the primary therapy to make it more effective, this is called a neoadjuvant therapy.

For More Information: National Cancer Institute

10. In vitro studies12– In vitro studies are those conducted outside of the body, as opposed to those conducted within the body (in vivo).

For More Information: National Cancer Institute

11. Therapeutic Vaccines13 – Cancer vaccines work similarly to any other vaccine, boosting the body’s natural ability to protect itself through an immune response. In the case of a cancer, the vaccine attempts to generate an immune response against an agent that causes cancer, such as a virus like hepatitis B, which can cause liver cancer, or directly against the abnormal cells that make up the cancer. A therapeutic vaccine is one that is given to a patient who already has cancer. There are currently many researchers investigating the use of vaccines to marshal a patient’s immune system to attack and kill cancer cells.

For More Information: National Cancer Institute

12. Pharmacokinetics14 – The branch of pharmacology concerned with the activity of drugs in the body. This may include how the drug is absorbed, distributed within the body, localised in tissues and excreted.

For More Information: National Cancer Institute

13. Nanotechnology/Nanomedicine15 – Nanoscale objects are constructs typically measuring less than 100 nanometres across. Nanotechnology is used in many industries including electronics, optics, and information technology, and has found applications in cancer diagnostics and treatment. It can be used to detect cancer cell abnormalities on very small scales, and there are currently many therapeutic nanomedicines under development that have the potential to be effective cancer treatments.

For More Information: National Cancer Institute Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer

14. Cancer Genomics16 – Almost every cell in a person’s body contains a full set of that individual’s DNA from the individual’s biological mother and father. Together, this DNA is called a genome. The full set of DNA that is found inside a cancer cell is called a cancer genome and it contains small changes that are passed from one generation of cancer cells to the next. These changes are responsible for making a cell cancerous rather than normal. Researchers are working to determine what changes turn a normal genome into a cancer genome, and how cancer genomes differ from one patient to the next.

For More Information: National Cancer Institute

15. Molecular Diagnostics17 – Diagnosing and understanding an individual’s cancer is becoming an ever more precise and important science. New techniques and tools are arising to allow physicians to learn about a patient’s cancer in less invasive ways. Molecular diagnostics examine markers from proteins to DNA that define the characteristics of an individual’s cancer. These tools can point clinicians to the best possible therapy, and identify potential new therapeutic targets for researchers.

For More Information: Drug Discovery World


1Stanford Medicine Center. The Stem Cell Theory of Cancer. Available at http://med.stanford.edu/ludwigcenter/overview/theory.html. Accessed October 2015.

2 National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. Metastatic Cancer. Available at http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/what-is-cancer/metastatic-fact-sheet#q6. Accessed October 2015.

3 National Human Genome Research Institute. Mutations. Available at: http://www.genome.gov/Glossary/index.cfm?id=134. Accessed October 2015.

4 Cancer Research UK. How cancer starts. Available at:  http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/what-is-cancer/how-cancer-starts#mutations. Accessed October 2015.

5American Cancer Society. What is cancer immunotherapy? Available at http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/treatmenttypes/immunotherapy/immunotherapy-what-is-immunotherapy. Accessed October 2015.

6National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. Impact of Cancer Genomics on Precision Medicine for the Treatment of Cancer. Available at http://cancergenome.nih.gov/cancergenomics/impact. Accessed October 2015.

7Cancer.net. What is Personalized Cancer Medicine? Available at http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/personalized-and-targeted-therapies/what-personalized-cancer-medicine. Accessed October 2015.

8 Cancer.net. Reading a Pathology Report. Available at: http://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/diagnosing-cancer/reports-and-results/reading-pathology-report. Accessed October 2015.

9Keystone Symposia. Epigenetics and Cancer. Available at http://www.keystonesymposia.org/15a4. Accessed October 2015.

10Gottesman MM. Mechanisms of Cancer Drug Resistance. Annual Review of Medicine. 2002:53:615-627

11National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. Adjuvant and Neoadjuvant Therapy for Breast Cancer. Available at http://www.cancer.gov/types/breast/adjuvant-fact-sheet. Accessed October 2015.

12National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. In Vitro. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms?CdrID=45733. Accessed October 2015.

13National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. Cancer Vaccines. Available at http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/vaccines-fact-sheet. Accessed October 2015.

14 National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. Pharmacokinetics. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms?CdrID=44324. Accessed October 2015.

15National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. Available at http://nano.cancer.gov/learn/. Accessed October 2015.

16National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute. What is Cancer Genomics? Available at http://cancergenome.nih.gov/cancergenomics/whatisgenomics/whatis. Accessed October 2015.

17Drug Discovery World. The future of molecular diagnostics for cancer. Available at http://www.ddw-online.com/personalised-medicine/p142739-the-future-of-molecular-diagnostics-for-cancer-spring-11.html. Accessed October 2015