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Cancer Glossary Terms

3-dimensional radiation therapy (…ray-dee-AY-shun…)

A procedure that uses a computer to create a 3-dimensional picture of the tumor. This allows doctors to give the highest possible dose of radiation to the tumor, while sparing the normal tissue as much as possible. Also called 3-dimensional conformal radiation therapy.

abdomen (AB-do-men)

The area of the body that contains the pancreas, stomach, intestine, liver, gallbladder, and other organs.


A quickly growing cancer.


A sac-like enlargement of a canal or duct.


In chemistry, a substance that is similar, but not identical, to another.

anus (AY-nus)

The opening of the rectum to the outside of the body.


Having no signs or symptoms of disease.

benign prostatic hyperplasia (hye-per-PLAY-zha)

BPH. A benign (noncancerous) condition in which an overgrowth of prostate tissue pushes against the urethra and the bladder, blocking the flow of urine. Also called benign prostatic hypertrophy.


The organ that stores urine.

bone scan

A technique to create images of bones on a computer screen or on film. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into a blood vessel and travels through the bloodstream; it collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.

brachytherapy (BRAKE-ih-THER-a-pee)

A procedure in which radioactive material sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters is placed directly into or near a tumor. Also called internal radiation, implant radiation, or interstitial radiation therapy.


A term for diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control. Cancer cells can invade nearby tissues and can spread through the bloodstream and lymphatic system to other parts of the body. There are several main types of cancer. Carcinoma is cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs. Sarcoma is cancer that begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue. Leukemia is cancer that starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow, and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream. Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the cells of the immune system.

carcinogen (kar-SIN-o-jin)

Any substance that causes cancer.


Having to do with the heart and lungs.


Having to do with the heart and blood vessels.


Removal or destruction of the testicles or ovaries using radiation, surgery, or drugs. Medical castration refers to the use of drugs to suppress the function of the ovaries or testicles.

catheter (KATH-i-ter)

A flexible tube used to deliver fluids into or withdraw fluids from the body.

chemotherapy (kee-mo-THER-a-pee)

Treatment with anticancer drugs.

computed tomography (tuh-MAH-gra-fee)

CT scan. A series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body taken from different angles; the pictures are created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. Also called computerized tomography and computerized axial tomography (CAT) scan.

cryosurgery (KRYE-o-SIR-jer-ee)

Treatment performed with an instrument that freezes and destroys abnormal tissues.


Difluoromethylornithine. A substance that is being studied in the treatment of cancer.

digital rectal examination

DRE. An examination in which a doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for abnormalities.


The release of semen through the penis during orgasm.


A protein that speeds up chemical reactions in the body.

external-beam radiation (ray-dee-AY-shun)

Radiation therapy that uses a machine to aim high-energy rays at the cancer. Also called external radiation.


The functional and physical unit of heredity passed from parent to offspring. Genes are pieces of DNA, and most genes contain the information for making a specific protein.

general anesthesia (an-es-THEE-zha)

Drugs that cause loss of feeling or awareness and put the person to sleep.


Inherited; having to do with information that is passed from parents to offspring through genes in sperm and egg cells.

Gleason score (GLEE-sun)

A system of grading prostate cancer cells based on how they look under a microscope. Gleason scores range from 2 to 10 and indicate how likely it is that a tumor will spread. A low Gleason score means the cancer cells are similar to normal prostate cells and are less likely to spread; a high Gleason score means the cancer cells are very different from normal and are more likely to spread.


The grade of a tumor depends on how abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope and how quickly the tumor is likely to grow and spread. Grading systems are different for each type of cancer.

hormonal therapy

Treatment that adds, blocks or removes hormones. For certain conditions (such as diabetes or menopause), hormones are given to adjust low hormone levels. To slow or stop the growth of certain cancers (such as prostate and breast cancer), synthetic hormones or other drugs may be given to block the body's natural hormones. Sometimes surgery is needed to remove the gland that makes hormones. Also called hormone therapy, hormone treatment, or endocrine therapy.


Tests that produce pictures of areas inside the body.

impotent (IM-po-tent)

In medicine, describes the inability to have an erection of the penis adequate for sexual intercourse.


The number of new cases of a disease diagnosed each year.

incision (in-SIH-zhun)

A cut made in the body to perform surgery.

incontinence (in-KAHN-tih-nens)

Inability to control the flow of urine from the bladder (urinary incontinence) or the escape of stool from the rectum (fecal incontinence).

indolent (IN-doe-lint)

A type of cancer that grows slowly.

laparoscopy (lap-a-RAHS-ko-pee)

The insertion of a thin, lighted tube (called a laparoscope) through the abdominal wall to inspect the inside of the abdomen and remove tissue samples.


Restricted to the site of origin, without evidence of spread.

lymph node dissection (limf node dis-EK-shun)

A surgical procedure in which lymph nodes are removed and examined to see whether they contain cancer. Also called lymphadenectomy.

lymphatic system (lim-FAT-ik SIS-tem)

The tissues and organs that produce, store, and carry white blood cells that fight infections and other diseases. This system includes the bone marrow, spleen, thymus, lymph nodes, and lymphatic vessels (a network of thin tubes that carry lymph and white blood cells). Lymphatic vessels branch, like blood vessels, into all the tissues of the body.

magnetic resonance imaging (mag-NET-ik REZ-o-nans IM-a-jing)

MRI. A procedure in which radio waves and a powerful magnet linked to a computer are used to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body. These pictures can show the difference between normal and diseased tissue. MRI makes better images of organs and soft tissue than other scanning techniques, such as CT or x-ray. MRI is especially useful for imaging the brain, spine, the soft tissue of joints, and the inside of bones. Also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.

medical castration

Refers to the use of drugs to suppress the function of the ovaries or testicles.

metastasis (meh-TAS-ta-sis)

The spread of cancer from one part of the body to another. A tumor formed from cells that have spread is called a secondary tumor, a metastatic tumor, or a metastasis. The secondary tumor contains cells that are like those in the original (primary) tumor. The plural form of metastasis is metastases (meh-TAS-ta-seez).

metastasize (meh-TAS-ta-size)

To spread from one part of the body to another. When cancer cells metastasize and form secondary tumors, the cells in the metastatic tumor are like those in the original (primary) tumor.

metastatic (MET-uh-STAT-ik)

Having to do with metastasis, which is the spread of cancer from one part of the body to another.


Too small to be seen without a microscope.

neoadjuvant therapy

Treatment given before the primary treatment. Examples of neoadjuvant therapy include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy.


Closely monitoring a patient's condition but withholding treatment until symptoms appear or change. Also called watchful waiting.

orchiectomy (or-kee-EK-toe-mee)

Surgery to remove one or both testicles. Also called orchidectomy.

palliative therapy (PAL-ee-yuh-tiv)

Treatment given to relieve the symptoms and reduce the suffering caused by cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Palliative cancer therapies are given together with other cancer treatments, from the time of diagnosis, through treatment, survivorship, recurrent or advanced disease, and at the end of life.

palpable disease

A term used to describe cancer that can be felt by touch, usually present in lymph nodes, skin, or other organs of the body such as the liver or colon.

pathologist (pa-THOL-o-jist)

A doctor who identifies diseases by studying cells and tissues under a microscope.


The lower part of the abdomen, located between the hip bones.

perineal prostatectomy (peh-rih-NEE-al pros-ta-TEK-toe-mee)

Surgery to remove the prostate through an incision made between the scrotum and the anus.


An inactive substance that looks the same as, and is administered in the same way as, a drug in a clinical trial.

prognosis (prog-NO-sis)

The likely outcome or course of a disease; the chance of recovery or recurrence.

prostate (PROS-tate)

A gland in the male reproductive system just below the bladder. The prostate surrounds part of the urethra, the canal that empties the bladder, and produces a fluid that forms part of semen.

prostate-specific antigen

PSA. A substance produced by the prostate that may be found in an increased amount in the blood of men who have prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, or infection or inflammation of the prostate.

prostatectomy (pros-ta-TEK-toe-mee)

An operation to remove part or all of the prostate. Radical (or total) prostatectomy is the removal of the entire prostate and some of the tissue around it.

prosthesis (pros-THEE-sis)

An artificial replacement of a part of the body.


Prostate-specific antigen. A substance produced by the prostate that may be found in an increased amount in the blood of men who have prostate cancer, benign prostatic hyperplasia, or infection or inflammation of the prostate.

radiation oncologist (ray-dee-AY-shun on-KOL-o-jist)

A doctor who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer.

radiation therapy (ray-dee-AY-shun)

The use of high-energy radiation from x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body (external-beam radiation therapy), or from materials called radioisotopes. Radioisotopes produce radiation and can be placed in or near the tumor or in the area near cancer cells. This type of radiation treatment is called internal radiation therapy, implant radiation, interstitial radiation, or brachytherapy. Systemic radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance, such as a radiolabeled monoclonal antibody, that circulates throughout the body. Also called radiotherapy, irradiation, and x-ray therapy.

radical prostatectomy (RAD-ih-kal pros-ta-TEK-toe-mee)

Surgery to remove the entire prostate. The two types of radical prostatectomy are retropubic prostatectomy and perineal prostatectomy.

radionuclide scanning

A test that produces pictures (scans) of internal parts of the body. The person is given an injection or swallows a small amount of radioactive material; a machine called a scanner then measures the radioactivity in certain organs.


The last 6 inches of the large intestine.


The return of cancer, at the same site as the original (primary) tumor or in another location, after the tumor had disappeared.

regional lymph node

In oncology, a lymph node that drains lymph from the region around a tumor.


The return of signs and symptoms of cancer after a period of improvement.


A decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body.

retropubic prostatectomy (re-tro-PYOO-bik pros-ta-TEK-toe-mee)

Surgery to remove the prostate through an incision made in the abdominal wall.

scrotum (SKRO-tum)

In males, the external sac that contains the testicles.


The fluid that is released through the penis during orgasm. Semen is made up of sperm from the testicles and fluid from the prostate and other sex glands.


The extent of a cancer within the body. If the cancer has spread, the stage describes how far it has spread from the original site to other parts of the body.

staging (STAY-jing)

Performing exams and tests to learn the extent of the cancer within the body, especially whether the disease has spread from the original site to other parts of the body. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan the best treatment.


The waste matter discharged in a bowel movement; feces.

support group

A group of people with similar disease who meet to discuss how better to cope with their disease and treatment.

surgery (SER-juh-ree)

A procedure to remove or repair a part of the body or to find out whether disease is present. An operation.


An indication that a person has a condition or disease. Some examples of symptoms are headache, fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and pain.

testosterone (tes-TOS-ter-own)

A hormone that promotes the development and maintenance of male sex characteristics.

transrectal ultrasound

A procedure used to examine the prostate. An instrument is inserted into the rectum, and sound waves bounce off the prostate. These sound waves create echoes, which a computer uses to create a picture called a sonogram.

transurethral resection of the prostate (TRANZ-yoo-REE-thral ree-SEK-shun)

Surgical procedure to remove tissue from the prostate using an instrument inserted through the urethra. Also called TURP.

tumor (TOO-mer)

An abnormal mass of tissue that results from excessive cell division. Tumors may be benign (not cancerous), or malignant (cancerous). Also called neoplasm.

urethra (yoo-REE-thra)

The tube through which urine leaves the body. It empties urine from the bladder.

urinary tract (YOO-rin-air-ee)

The organs of the body that produce and discharge urine. These include the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra.

urine (YOO-rin)

Fluid containing water and waste products. Urine is made by the kidneys, stored in the bladder, and leaves the body through the urethra.

urologist (yoo-RAHL-o-jist)

A doctor who specializes in diseases of the urinary organs in females and the urinary and sex organs in males.

vas deferens

A coiled tube that carries the sperm out of the testes.

vitamin A

A substance used in cancer prevention. It belongs to the family of drugs called retinoids.

watchful waiting

Closely monitoring a patient's condition but withholding treatment until symptoms appear or change. Also called observation.


A type of high-energy radiation. In low doses, x-rays are used to diagnose diseases by making pictures of the inside of the body. In high doses, x-rays are used to treat cancer.

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  Website updated on  April 2008
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