Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
If you have been forced into cancer-land, you know that it is a world full of confusing terminology. From the name of each particular type of cancer to blood tests to treatments and even the type of doctors that we see, it can feel like you need a PhD just to understand what they are saying. Today, I’d like to take some time to breakdown some of these terms, in an effort to help you get a better grasp on what is going on in your treatment world.
Cancer, in and of itself, can be a confusing term. When we say, “I have cancer,” we are using a very general term that means that we have a disease that is causing out of control cell growth somewhere in our body. That is why you so often hear me say that cancer isn’t a single disease, but a multitude of diseases with just as many causes.
We hear about a lot of cancer types that use the term carcinoma – this is a type of cancer that begins in the epithelial cells of a certain part of our body. When I had papillary carcinoma of the thyroid, it means that the cancer began in the epithelial cells of the thyroid, and papillary describes the shape of the cancer, or how it looked under the microscope. Other descriptors of the cells may be – large cell, small cell, non-small cell, etc. These descriptors tell the doctors a ton about how the cancer acts and reacts.
Lymphomas arise from lymphocytes that become malignant. Although lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell, the majority of them actually reside in the lymph nodes, the spleen, and a few other organs. These guys have a massive impact on our immune system.
Leukemias begin in the bone marrow, where blood cells are made. There are many different kinds of leukemia, affecting a huge age range from toddlers to senior citizens. In these diseases, the blood cells that are produced, don’t function like their healthy counterparts, and eventually take over, causing a wide range of symptoms from anemia to a compromised immune system.
Oncologists are the doctors that specialize in the treatment of cancers. There are three main sub-specialties under the term oncologist. Medical oncologists are the doctors that we traditionally think of as our oncologist. They are the ones that prescribe chemotherapy and other “medical” type treatments. Surgical oncologists specialize in the surgical removal of cancers, and radiation oncologists use their specialized knowledge to prescribe radiation treatments used to cure and/or shrink cancers.
Chemotherapy, is the use of a chemical to treat a condition – technically speaking, taking a pain reliever for a headache is a form of chemotherapy. In oncology, however, chemotherapy refers to a group of pharmaceuticals that seek out and destroy fast growing cells, such as cancer. Sadly with that target, other healthy cells in our body that replicate quickly, such as hair and the lining of our gastrointestinal tract, are often damaged.
In oncology, radiation, doesn’t have to be scary. The use of radiation to destroy cancer cells have come a long way from the first uses over a century ago. Those radiation oncologists are able to pinpoint the beam of external radiation to deliver precise doses and minimize damage to surrounding tissues. Internal radiation methods are also available – these often come in the form of radioactive beads that are place inside or next to a tumor. Systemic radiation is also used in the treatment of papillary and follicular thyroid cancers. For more on radiation, take a look at “More Effective Radiation Coming Soon.”
Immunology is an exciting new-ish field in the fight against cancer. I say new-ish because its been around for a century, but has really just started coming into the spotlight over the last twenty to thirty years. In immunotherapy, we are actually getting our own bodies to fight cancer, rather that depending upon other treatments that may be harmful. This field is described in more detail in “Immunotherapy and Cancer.”
You are likely to hear a ton more terms that make you scratch your head as you go through this journey. Never, ever be afraid to ask your doctor for clarification on something if you are unsure. If you think you have a “stupid question,” don’t be shy – I guarantee they have heard it all. Furthermore, my dear friends, where your health is concerned – there is no such thing as a stupid question.
As always, much love, many prayers, and abundant blessings to all of the warriors out there!