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What Does That Word Mean? Understanding Cancer Screening Terms

Read Time: 3 minutes

Patient sitting next to a doctor holding a clipboard

When you get a cancer screening, you may hear your doctor use phrases and words that are new to you. If you don’t know what they mean, it can be hard to understand what’s happening when you get one of these tests. This list explains the meaning behind commonly used cancer screening terms.

Types of Screening Tests

  • Biopsy: This is when a doctor removes cells or tissue from your body and sends it to a lab. Another doctor called a pathologist looks at the cells or tissue under a microscope.
  • Cancer screening: This type of exam happens with a healthy person who has no symptoms of cancer. Screenings help find cancer early.
  • Cancer diagnostic testing: This test helps doctors know what type of cancer a person has and the stage of the cancer.
  • CT scan: CT stands for computed tomography. It is a type of imaging test. A CT scan uses a computer linked to an x-ray machine to take pictures of the inside of the body. This test shows the body’s tissues and organs more clearly than on a regular x-ray.
  • Cytology: This is when a pathologist looks at cells under a microscope.
  • Genetic testing: Genetic testing looks for gene mutations that raise a person’s chances of getting cancer.
  • MRI: MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. An MRI uses a computer linked to radio waves and a powerful magnet to take pictures of the inside of the body. These pictures can show where disease is.
  • Needle biopsy: This test removes tissue or fluid from the body using a small needle. This tissue or fluid is then sent to a lab to be looked at under a microscope.
  • X-ray: An x-ray is a type of imaging that uses low doses of radiation to take pictures inside the body.

Screening Results Terms

  • Adenoma: This is a type of tumor that is not cancer. These tumors are most commonly found in the colon, thyroid, or prostate.
  • Benign: This means non-cancerous. Benign tumors may grow, but they do not spread.
  • Cyst: This is a sac-like pocket that can form anywhere in the body. Cysts can be filled with fluid, air, pus, or other material. Most cysts are not cancer.
  • Dense breasts: This term describes breast tissue that has more fibers and glands than fat. It can be harder to find cancer in dense breasts.
  • Lesion: This is an area of abnormal tissue. Lesions can be cancerous or non-cancerous.
  • Lymph node: These are located throughout the body. They have fluid that helps filter substances that travel throughout the body. Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.
  • Malignant: This means cancerous. Malignant cells can spread to other parts of the body and cause damage.
  • Mass: This is a lump that occurs in the body. A mass can be cancerous or non-cancerous.
  • Polyp: This is a growth found in areas that have a mucous membrane, such as the colon, cervix, or lungs. Sometimes polyps can become cancer.
  • Precancerous: This term describes a cell, lesion, or mass that may become cancer.

Other Words You Might See or Hear

  • False negative: This is a test result that shows a person does not have the disease when they actually do have the disease.
  • False positive: This is when a test shows a person has the disease when they actually do not have it.
  • Pathologist: This doctor has special training in finding diseases by studying cells, tissue, and fluid under a microscope.

Talk to your doctor if you come across any words or phrases you do not know. You can also search the National Cancer Institute’s dictionary of cancer terms, or you can reach out to a cancer information specialist at Huntsman Cancer Institute:

Cancer touches all of us.