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11 key acronyms and terms you should know when navigating cancer

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When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it can feel like you’ve been dropped into a conversation where everyone is speaking a foreign language. Suddenly, you’re scrambling to understand a barrage of medical terms and acronyms—knowledge that could be crucial in saving your life. Grasping these terms quickly becomes essential, as they play a vital role in your treatment decisions and interactions with your healthcare team. Here’s a glossary of key acronyms and terms to help you navigate the complex landscape of cancer care more effectively.

1.TNM Staging System

One of the first terms you’ll encounter after a cancer diagnosis is the TNM staging system. This system is used by medical professionals to describe the size and extent of cancer. “T” stands for tumor and indicates the size of the original tumor; “N” denotes nodes and refers to whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes; “M” stands for metastasis and tells if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. For example, a “T2 N1 M0” breast cancer means the tumor is larger than 2 cm but not larger than 5 cm, has spread to nearby lymph nodes, and there’s no distant metastasis.

2.Biopsy (BX)

A biopsy is a diagnostic test that involves extracting a small piece of tissue or a sample of cells from your body. It’s then analyzed in a lab to determine if cancer cells are present. For instance, in prostate cancer, a biopsy can help determine how aggressive the cancer is, which is crucial for treatment planning.

3.Immunohistochemistry (IHC)

Immunohistochemistry is a diagnostic method used to detect specific antigens in cells of a tissue section, using the principle of antibodies binding specifically to antigens in biological tissues. IHC is critical for identifying the type of cancer, its origin, and the presence of specific proteins that can inform treatment options, such as hormone receptors in breast cancer or PD-L1 expression in lung cancer. This technique helps tailor personalized therapy plans by identifying targets for specific treatments.

4.Fluorescence In Situ Hybridization (FISH)

Fluorescence In Situ Hybridization, or FISH, is a test that uses special colored probes to look at specific parts of chromosomes in cells. This test helps doctors find changes in chromosomes that can cause cancer, such as the extra copies of the HER2 gene in breast cancer or unusual chromosome arrangements in leukemia. Understanding these genetic details is very important for diagnosing the type of cancer, predicting how the disease might progress, and choosing the most effective treatment.

5.Chemotherapy (Chemo)

Chemotherapy involves the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells. It’s often just referred to as “chemo” and can be used for various cancers, including lung and breast cancer. Chemo might be administered before surgery (neoadjuvant chemotherapy) to shrink a tumor, or after surgery (adjuvant chemotherapy) to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.

6.Radiation Therapy (RT)

Radiation therapy uses high-energy particles or waves, such as X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams, or protons, to destroy or damage cancer cells. It’s a common treatment for cancers like melanoma and lung cancer and can be used alone or in combination with other treatments.

7.Immunotherapy (IO)

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that helps your immune system fight cancer. It includes treatments that work in different ways, such as boosting the immune system overall or training the immune system to attack cancer cells specifically. This treatment is gaining traction for a variety of cancers, including melanoma and lung cancer.

8.Targeted Therapy (TT)

Unlike chemotherapy, which generally affects all rapidly dividing cells, targeted therapy aims at specific genes or proteins that contribute to cancer growth and survival. This type of treatment is often used in cancers like breast cancer, where drugs target specific cancer cells that have hormone receptors or excess HER2 protein.

9.Complete Blood Count (CBC)

A Complete Blood Count is a common blood test that provides important information about the kinds, number, and health of cells in your blood — including white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This test is crucial during cancer treatment, especially chemotherapy, to monitor your health and how your body is handling the treatment.

10.Oncologist (Onc)

An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer and provides medical care for a person diagnosed with cancer. The field of oncology has three major areas: medical, surgical, and radiation.

11.Palliative Care (PC)

Palliative care is specialized medical care aimed at providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. Contrary to common misconceptions, palliative care is not limited to end-of-life situations; it can be provided alongside curative treatments to enhance quality of life at any stage of illness. The goal is to improve comfort and quality of life for both the patient and their family, addressing physical, emotional, and psychological needs throughout the course of treatment.

By familiarizing yourself with these terms, you can improve your understanding of your condition and treatment options, making your conversations with doctors more informative and empowering. Remember, you’re not alone on this journey, and understanding the language of cancer care is a powerful step toward active participation in your treatment and care.

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