Lung Cancer: A Beginner's Guide to Terminology

Patient Expert

You’ve just been diagnosed with lung cancer, and the doctor launches into a long, detailed description of your treatment. Problem is, s/he’s using language that completely baffles you—you’ve barely heard the phrase CAT scan, let alone bronchogenic carcinoma. You need to get up to speed quickly on the medical terminology surrounding lung cancer—this guide will help.


A subtype of the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung carcinoma.

Adjuvant therapy

Your primary treatment will probably be surgery to remove the tumor. Any treatment beyond this first option is called adjuvant therapy. It’s treatment that will reinforce what’s been done, and hopefully improve results – e.g., radiation following surgery.


Tiny cavity-like spaces in the lungs where the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange takes place. Alveoli are the end of the “bronchial tree.”


The inability of the lungs to inflate fully; or a collapsed lung.


The harvesting of a small amount of tissue, either via surgery or a needle, to determine the presence/absence of cancer. If cancer is present, the biopsy can usually also demonstrate what type of lung cancer you have.


A medical term for lung cancer that affects the lining of the bronchi. About 90 percent of lung cancers are bronchogenic.


A procedure in which a tube is inserted into the trachea (windpipe) in order to view the bronchial tubes, the tubes that deliver air from the windpipe to the lungs.


The drug treatment used to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is most commonly administered via an IV, though it can also be given in pill form. While it has an array of potential side effects, many can be treated to make the patient more comfortable.


Contralateral (“opposite”) is cancer in the lung or lymph nodes opposite the primary cancer site. Ipsilateral (“the same”) is cancer in different lobes of the same lung; or lymph nodes on the same side as the affected lung.

CT scan

Also known as a CAT scan or computer tomography scan, this is a series of X-rays used to provide a very detailed view of your lungs, including any questionable masses. It usually takes less than a minute, and you won’t need to have an injection, nor refrain from eating or drinking ahead of time.


Shortness of breath. This is often cited as a lung cancer symptom.


Scarring of lung tissue, often due to cancer and sometimes other diseases, particularly asbestosis.


Coughing up blood or bloody mucus. While this is a possible symptom of lung cancer, it’s more likely to be symptomatic of other diseases, e.g., tuberculosis. Hemoptysis can also be a symptom of metastatic lung cancer, i.e., cancer in the lungs that’s come from another source (breast, colon, etc.).

Large cell carcinoma

A subtype of the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung carcinoma.


The removal of one lobe of the lung.

Lymph nodes

Small nodes located in different parts of your body that filter out any abnormalities (infections, reactions to drugs, cancer). Lymph nodes in the chest are one of the first places to which lung cancer can spread.


The mediastinum is the area of the chest located between the lungs. A mediastinoscopy is surgery that provides a visual survey of this area.


When cancer spreads from its original site to other parts of the body, it’s said to have metastasized. The new area where cancer is discovered is called a metastasis, a.k.a. “met” or “mets.”


MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a magnetic field, radio-frequency pulses, and a computer to produce a detailed image of any part of the body. Your doctor may order a lung MRI to get a better view of any suspicious mass or identified tumor.

Neo-adjuvant therapy

Any treatment administered prior to primary treatment (e.g., chemotherapy to shrink a tumor before surgery).

Non-small cell lung cancer

The most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) includes three subtypes: adenocarcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and large cell carcinoma.

PET scan

A PET (positron emission tomography) scan is used to detect the spread of lung cancer to other parts of the body.


A protective pair of membranes in the chest: one surrounds the lungs, one lines the chest cavity. Pleural effusion is the term for fluid collecting in the space between the pleura. Pleurodesis is surgery that drains pleural effusion, and prevents its recurrence.


The surgical removal of one lung.


Air inside the chest (pleural) cavity, but outside the lungs. Pneumothorax can sometimes occur after surgery, and can cause a lung to collapse.


A small, surgically implanted tube used for the delivery of chemotherapy. A port eliminates the oncology nurse having to search for a useable vein each time chemotherapy is administered. The port is removed once chemo is concluded.

Primary tumor

Theoriginal tumor at any site, as identified by diagnostic screening and surgery.


A detailed treatment plan, including all of the numerous steps involved in surgery and whatever follows: radiation, chemotherapy, etc.


Of or relating to the lungs.


A doctor specializing in diseases of the lungs, including lung cancer.

Radiation/radiation therapy:

A common type of treatment using X-rays and/or gamma rays to kill cancer cells. These rays are meticulously positioned to reach as much of the cancer (and as little healthy surrounding tissue) as possible.

Radiation oncologist

A doctor specializing in the treatment of cancer via radiation.


A doctor specializing in reading radiological tests, and in delivering radiology treatments – e.g., radiation.


When no cancer cells can be detected. Remission doesn’t necessarily mean the patient is cancer-free; just that doctors are unable to identify any areas of cancer, either visually or via tests.

Segmental resection

The removal of a small part or wedge of lung tissue. Surgery to remove a lung tumor may be termed a segmental resection.

Small cell lung cancer

About 10 to 15 percent of all lung cancers diagnosed are small cell lung cancer (SCLC). A faster-growing lung cancer than non-small cell, it’s considered more aggressive and harder to treat. In fact, by the time it’s found, SCLC has usually already spread to other parts of the body.

Squamous cell carcinoma

A subtype of the most common type of lung cancer, non-small cell lung carcinoma.


Doctors “stage” your cancer to indicate its aggressiveness and seriousness. Your cancer stage will help determine what type of treatment you receive.


The removal of fluid from the area between lungs and chest wall (the pleural cavity).

Thoracic surgeon

A surgeon specializing in chest operations, including lung surgery.


Surgery that examines the lungs and chest interior, looking for the presence of cancer; and/or the removal of tumors.

Tumor board

Doctors, surgeons, and other medical personnel who meet regularly, usually weekly, to discuss and agree on treatment for specific cancer patients.


VATS (video assisted thoracic surgery) is a less invasive form of lung surgery than the standard procedure. Since it’s less invasive, recovery time is quicker.

Wedge resection

Surgery that involves removing an identified tumor and a small amount of surrounding tissue.


"Glossary." Lung Cancer Alliance. Accessed December 5, 2015.

"Lung Cancer Glossary of Terms with Medical Definitions." EMedicineHealth. Accessed December 5, 2015.

Cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.