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Cancer Basics

If the doctor has just said, "It's cancer," this is the place to start.

In this unit we'll cover basic information you need when facing cancer, whether as the patient or a loved one. This includes:

  • Cancer terms and definitions.
  • The medical professionals on your cancer care team.
  • Things you can do to prevent cancer.
  • Preparing your legal documents.

Cancer terms and definitions

Cancer has a whole language of its own. Review this list of terms before your next appointment. And if you don't understand something someone has said, be sure to ask them to slow down and explain it in other words.

Basic cancer vocabulary

  • Acute: Describes symptoms that are severe, but only last a short time.
  • Benign: Describes a tumor that is not cancerous and doesn't usually spread to other parts of the body.
  • Biopsy: Procedure to remove a tissue sample for examination under a microscope. Used to diagnose cancer.
  • Cancer: Diseases with unusual cell growth that can move into nearby tissues.
  • Chemotherapy: Treatment for cancer that uses drugs to kill cancer cells.
  • Chronic: Describes a disease or condition that lasts for a long time and often develops slowly.
  • Imaging test: A procedure that uses x-ray, PET/CT, MRI, etc, to creates pictures of the inside of the body. The images are used to diagnose, plan treatment, evaluate the effectiveness of treatment or observe a disease.
  • Invasive cancer: When cancer spreads outside the part of the body where it first began growing.
  • Laboratory test: A procedure that examines a sample of blood, urine, etc., to diagnose, plan treatment, evaluate the effectiveness of treatment or observe a disease.
  • Localized cancer: Cancer that has not spread.
  • Lymphatic system: A network in the body of small tubes and organs that carry fluid around the body. Cancer can spread through the lymphatic system.
  • Metastasis: When cancer spreads to another part of the body.
  • Oncologist: A doctor who cares for people diagnosed with cancer.
  • Oncology: The study of cancer.
  • Pathologist: A doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests to diagnose disease.
  • Precancerous: Describes cells that could become cancerous.
  • Predisposition: When someone's genetics make them more likely to develop a disease under certain conditions.
  • Prognosis: A prediction about how a disease will play out and a person’s chances of recovery.
  • Radiation therapy: A medical treatment using beams of high-energy or radioactivity to damage cancer cells.
  • Staging: A way to describe the spread and impact of cancer in the body.
  • Tumor: A lump in the body that is formed when normal cells mutate and grow rapidly. Not all tumors are cancerous.

Other resources for cancer terminology

Who is on my team?

It takes a village to provide comprehensive cancer care. These are just a few of the caregivers who provide support along the way:


Your oncologist leads your cancer care team. Depending on your cancer treatment plan, you may have a medical oncologist and/or a radiation oncologist.

Meet the members of our cancer team.

Oncology social worker

Oncology social workers are licensed professionals who counsel patients/caregivers affected by cancer, provide emotional support and help people access practical assistance. Oncology social workers can provide individual counseling, support groups, locate services that help with home care or transportation, and guide people through the process of applying for Social Security disability or other forms of assistance.

Cancer Resource Center

The Resource Center connects patients and their care partners with classes, activities, information and care and comfort items during and after treatment. Visit us to check out a book from our library, pick up a brochure, find a free wig, purchase a snack or learn about a variety of classes and complementary therapies available to you. One of our volunteers will be happy to assist you!

Financial navigator

Our compassionate financial counselor is here to help you navigate the often-confusing world of bills, insurance and financial assistance. The financial counselor is here to help connect you with co-pay assistance programs and medication assistance programs. We have one located right in the building, please ask for the financial counselor if you have any questions.

Team nurse

Help navigate patients and families through diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. The team nurse provides education on disease process and treatment. Team nurses help field phone calls of current and new patients with questions regarding their diagnosis, treatment, and side effects.

Infusion nurse

As part of the oncology and infusion team, the infusion RN assesses, analyzes, and applies patient data in order to best serve the patient's needs. This may include administration of IV and oral medications, inserting peripheral IVs, accessing ports, and consulting with providers, pharmacists, and social workers to best facilitate the care plan for each unique patient.

Infusion pharmacist

The oncology pharmacist role is to ensure safety in compounding, preparing, and dispensing chemotherapy. They mix each patients unique chemotherapy cocktail.

Oral chemotherapy pharmacist

Your oncology doctor may determine that an oral chemotherapy drug is the best way to treat your cancer. Oral chemo is a pill or liquid that you swallow and take at home. Before you start, you will receive very clear instructions and how to take you medication and what side effects to expect. It is very important to take your oral chemo exactly as the doctor tells you.

Your oral chemo will come from a specialty mail order pharmacy which will coordinate your medication shipments. Your medication may be delivered to the clinic or to your home, depending on your preference and insurance requirements. Sometimes your insurance copay may be very high, since these drugs are very expensive. Our team will work with you and the specialty pharmacy to find funding assistance so your medication will be affordable.

Even though you will be taking your chemotherapy at home, you will still be followed closely by your oncology team with lab work, scans and doctor visits.

Important phone numbers

Advance directives/advance care planning

The goal of advance care planning is to help medical professionals and loved ones understand the type of care consistent with your wishes and goals. Advance care planning is an ongoing process that may change at every life transition. It is important to have an open discussion about your wishes with friends, families, and your medical team.

Planning can start at any stage of life or diagnosis. Planning can relieve stress on you and your family members as it can reduce confusion and disagreements.

  • Health care directive. This is more commonly known as a living will, it is a legal document that states your general wishes for end of life care. This document should specify the life-sustaining treatments you may or may not want. This document allows your wishes to honored when you are unable to speak for yourself.
  • Durable medical power of attorney. This also can be referred to as a health care representative, health care proxy or health care agent. This is a legal document that allows someone that is appointed by you to make medical decisions when you are unable to. You can name a primary and alternative agent to direct your healthcare wishes. It is important that whoever you choose understands your wishes and is able to act upon them.
  • Physician orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST). This specific form is intended for individuals with a serious health condition. POLST is for emergency medical decisions. POLST is usually sought out by paramedics/first responders and emergency department professionals so they are able to act upon your wishes in an emergency. This form needs to be signed by the maker and health care provider.

You can reach out to the oncology social worker at 503.338.4589 for assistance in filling out these forms.