10 Terms You May Hear After a Cancer Diagnosis

A doctor showing diagnosis forms to a patient.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be scary and overwhelming for many reasons. Patients find out they have serious, potentially terminal cancer. Then they have to learn about that cancer to make sound decisions about treatment.

Discussions about prognosis and treatment may include unfamiliar words and jargon. This can make these conversations even more challenging and stressful. Having a better understanding of cancer terms may make some of these challenges easier. The list below explains some of the most common cancer terms. It may help patients feel less anxious when they talk to their care teams.

What Terms Can Someone Expect to Hear After a Cancer Diagnosis?

Many of the words associated with cancer have to do with diagnostic tests and tumor characteristics. Others relate to treatment options and the patient’s prognosis. Every person’s experience with cancer is different. But there are some common words that most will hear once or twice. Patients may find it helpful to understand them.

Cancer Diagnosis Glossary

Below are ten of the most common terms related to a cancer diagnosis. This is not an exhaustive list. Different cancers will have specific terminology, and each person’s experience and treatment is different.


(beh-NINE) Tissues or cells that are not cancerous

Some patients may learn a suspected tumor is benign. Benign tumors may grow larger but rarely spread to other parts of the body. Doctors may also call benign tumors non-malignant. Some rare cell types of mesothelioma are considered benign.


(BY-op-see) Removal of cells or body tissue for further testing

Biopsies may happen before and after a patient learns they have cancer. They can help identify cancer and see if cancer cells have spread to other areas. Testing a tissue biopsy sample can reliably diagnose mesothelioma.


(grayd) A characteristic of cancer cells that indicates how abnormal and likely to spread they are

Doctors may determine the grade for cancers like non-Hodgkin lymphoma and prostate cancer. A higher grade generally means a more aggressive cancer. Mesothelioma is not typically assigned a grade during diagnosis.


(IH-myoo-noh-HIS-toh-KEH-mih-stree) A type of laboratory test that can help distinguish between types of cancer

Immunohistochemistry helps doctors test biopsy tissue. It can determine if the tissue has properties linked to specific types of cancer or other conditions. Immunohistochemistry testing is crucial for confirming a mesothelioma diagnosis.


(muh-LIG-nunt) Another word for cancer or cancerous tissue

Malignant tumors can form in many places in the body. In some cases, the location of malignant tissue determines its name. Malignant pleural mesothelioma forms in the lining around the lungs (the pleura). Malignant peritoneal mesothelioma forms in the lining of the abdomen (the peritoneum).

Palliative Care

(PA-lee-uh-tiv kayr) A type of healthcare intended to improve quality of life and reduce pain for people with serious illnesses, including cancer

Palliative care helps patients at any point in their cancer journey. It can help manage the side effects of treatment. It can also help patients take care of their mental and emotional health. Palliation may also extend survival for some mesothelioma patients.


(prog-NO-sis) How a doctor expects cancer to progress or respond to treatment over time

A patient’s prognosis is a bit like a forecast of how their cancer will affect them over time. For mesothelioma, prognosis often includes life expectancy and quality of life. Prognosis may change depending on how the cancer responds to treatment.


(stayj) How much a cancer has grown or spread at the time of diagnosis

Cancer stage describes the amount and extent of cancer. It can help oncologists determine the best treatment. Surgery-based treatment may have more benefits for early-stage mesothelioma. Late-stage cases may benefit more from systemic therapies.


(SER-juh-ree) A medical procedure to find or remove cancer tissue

Cancer surgeries generally aim to remove tumor tissue. In some cases, surgery may be used to relieve symptoms rather than directly fight cancer. For mesothelioma, surgery often plays a role in combination treatment plans. This approach uses two or more types of therapy to fight cancer.

Systemic Therapy

(sis-TEH-mik THAYR-uh-pee) Cancer treatment that puts drugs in the bloodstream to send them all over the body

Many cancers are treated with systemic therapies like chemotherapy. Systemic treatments may cause more side effects than non-systemic. Common systemic therapies for mesothelioma include chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

How to Learn More About Cancer Terminology

Discussions about cancer status and treatment options can be stressful, even in the best circumstances. Understanding common terms may help reduce some of that stress. However, patients may still hear unfamiliar words not covered in this list. If so, there are several options for learning more, including:

  • Ask the experts: Patients can ask members of their care teams to explain unfamiliar words or phrases.
  • Learn online: The National Cancer Institute has exhaustive patient resources on their site. Patients can find user-friendly information on many cancer topics there.
  • Work with a patient navigator: Many cancer centers have patient navigators on staff. These navigators help guide patients through the process of getting cancer treatment. Patients can find out if their cancer center has a patient navigator by contacting the information or help desk.

A cancer diagnosis comes with many challenges. Understanding the terminology around it doesn’t need to be one of them. Patients should use the resources offered at their cancer centers, online and through their care teams. This assistance can help ease many difficulties, including making cancer jargon easier to comprehend.