Your Colon Cancer Glossary: Words You Need to Know

Judi Ebbert, PhD, MPH, RN | Nov 29, 2017

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It’s easy to be baffled by an oncologist’s jargon – even when you’re well into diagnosis and treatment with colon cancer, there may still be words you don’t understand. For instance, when your doctor mentions a “PET,” she’s not referring to man’s best friend. And when she talks about “stages,” it’s got nothing to do with theaters. You need to learn your doctor’s language to make informed treatment decisions, which is why we gathered the following definitions to help you understand the terms associated with colon cancer.

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What does the word colon mean?

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Let’s start at the beginning: what does the word “colon” mean? Colon is another word for large intestine. Food exits the stomach into the small intestine, then passes into the colon. The colon has four sections: the ascending, transverse, descending, and sigmoid parts. The colon starts at the cecum (the pouch at the first part of the large intestine) and ends at the rectum.

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Ablation, adenocarcinoma, adjuvant treatment

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Ablation is a treatment technique that destroys cancer cells by using liquid nitrogen to freeze the tumor, or using high radiofrequency or microwaves to kill tumor tissue. Adenocarcinoma is a malignant tumor formed from glandular structures in epithelial tissue. Adjuvant treatment is given to reduce risk of the cancer coming back, usually after surgery to remove the tumor.

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Benign, biopsy, carcinoma in situ

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Benign means harmless, nonmalignant. Biopsy is the examination of tissue that has been removed from the body to identify the type and extent of disease. Carcinoma in situ is cancer that is noninvasive, meaning it has not grown into surrounding tissue and thus has probably not spread.

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Chemo, clinical trials, colectomy, colonoscopy

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Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cells or stop them from reproducing. Cytotoxic chemotherapy kills cells; biologics may target specific genomic pathways. Clinical trials are carefully monitored studies of promising treatments to determine effectiveness and safety. Colectomy is surgery to remove part of the colon. Colonoscopy is a procedure in which a thin tube is inserted in the colon to view or remove abnormal tissue, a polyp for example, for analysis.

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Colostomy, CBC, DNA

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Colostomy is a procedure to draw the end of the colon through an incision in the stomach. It is done after removal of part of the colon and is often reversed. Complete blood count (CBC) is a test that measures the amount of red and white blood cells and platelets in one’s blood. DNA is short for “deoxyribonucleic acid,” a long molecule that holds our genetic code, which has been called the “blueprint of life.” A mutation in DNA can lead to cells that become cancerous, growing at a fast rate and killing healthy cells.

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Embolization, epithelial tissue, FAP, hepatic arterial infusion, histology

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Embolization uses beads containing radiation or chemotherapy to block blood flow to a tumor. Epithelial tissue forms the outer layer of a body’s surface and lines the intestines. Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) is an inherited condition that causes many polyps to grow in the digestive tract and increases risk for colon cancer. Hepatic arterial infusion delivers chemotherapy directly to the liver. Histology describes the type of cells in tissue.

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Immunotherapy, infusion, lymph, lymph nodes, Lynch Syndrome

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Immunotherapy uses the immune system to fight disease. Infusion is delivery of a drug through a blood vessel. Lymph is a clear fluid that contains white blood cells that help fight infection. Lymph nodes are groups of cells throughout the body that help fight disease. Lynch Syndrome, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), is an inherited condition that increases risk for colon as well as other cancers.

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MRI, malignant, metastasis, neoadjuvant treatment

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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio waves and a magnetic field to depict the inside of the body. Malignant means a tumor is cancerous. Metastasis is the spread of cancer cells to other organs of the body. Neoadjuvant treatment is delivery of a second treatment, often chemotherapy, prior to the main treatment, usually surgery.

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Pathology, perineural invasion, personalized oncology

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Pathology is the study of tissue and body fluids to diagnose disease and predict response to therapy based on molecular composition. Perineural invasion means cancer cells have spread into nearby nerves. Personalized oncology is evidence-based, individualized cancer care that uses molecular tests to select the best targeted therapy.

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PET/CT is positron emission tomography, or the use of radioactive material to view organ shape and function. PET is often done with computed tomography, which uses X-rays from multiple angles to depict the inside of the body. PICC line is a central catheter that can be used to administer chemotherapy for a prolonged period of time.

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Polyps, polyp types

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Polyps are excess tissue growth on the wall of the colon. Most polyps are adenomas. When the adenomatous polyp becomes cancerous, it is called an adenocarcinoma. Polyp types are a villous polyp that has a ruffly appearance. A sessile polyp is flat. A pedunculated polyp looks like a mushroom. Most polyps don’t become cancerous, but some do. A colonoscopy can find them early and remove them before they become cancerous.

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Prognosis, radiation therapy, recurrence, remission, side effects

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Prognosis refers to the outcome of a disease. Radition therapy uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. Recurrence means cancer has returned. Remission means that treatment has resulted in no detectable cancer (a complete remission) or cancer has partly gone away (partial remission). Side effects are unintended physical symptoms or responses to treatment.

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Sigmoidoscopy, stage, surgery, ultrasound

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Sigmoidoscopy is insertion of a lighted tube to examine the rectum and the lower colon.  Stage indicates how far cancer has advanced. Surgery is making an incision to remove a tumor while a patient is under anesthesia. Ultrasound uses sound waves to create images of the inside of the body.