Glossary: Understanding lung cancer

Being diagnosed with lung cancer is a minefield. It is not made any easier by medical jargon. Our glossary aims to take away some of the confusion around lung cancer so you can understand what you are dealing with.

Anaesthetic: The use of a drug, either locally to numb an area, or generally to put someone to sleep.

Benign: This is a growth, which although abnormal in the body, is not a cancer. Although it may grow and spread locally it does not metastasise or spread to other areas of the body.
Biopsy: This is the removal of a small portion of tissue usually from the lung but may also be from the liver, skin or other areas to look at under the microscope. There are several different types of biopsy; these include:

  • Lung biopsy, which often takes place during a CT scan (known as a CT guided biopsy)
  • Bronchoscopy, in which a thin flexible tube is used to examine inside the lung airways and take sample cells
  • Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS)
  • Fine needle aspiration, in which a fine needle is inserted an area of abnormal swelling or lumps under the skin, such as cysts, nodules or masses, and enlarged lymph nodes
  • Mediastinoscopy, which is a surgical procedure used to examine lymph nodes under the breastbone, using a thin flexible tube with a camera on the end.

Cancer: The term given for a growth which is out of the body’s normal control. Cancers tends to spread either locally, i.e. within the lung, or may spread to other areas.

Cannula: This is the needle or very fine tube that is inserted into a blood vessel in the hand or the arm in order to deliver drugs.

Chemotherapy: This is drug therapy, usually targeting small cell lung cancer. It may be given in the form of tablets or more likely by injection. These drugs target rapidly dividing cells and kill them, meaning that they can be effective against cancer as its cells divide rapidly.

Curative: This is a word used by doctors when they believe that the treatment they are going to give you is going to take away all the cancer and therefore cure you of the disease. Although it is impossible to tell immediately after treatment whether you have been cured or not the doctor will be able to tell you whether the treatment you are going to receive is likely to result in a cure.

Growth: This is another name for a tumour. Both growths and tumours can be benign or malignant. Sometimes a doctor may use the term tumour or growth because they are trying to avoid using the word cancer. It is important then that you ask whether this growth or tumour is benign or malignant.

Malignant: This is a cancer. The word malignant describes the fact that the cancer is not under normal control and that it has the potential to spread both locally and to distant areas.
Metastases: These are the areas of the body where a cancer has spread. For example, a lung cancer may spread to the brain and this will be called a brain metastasis. It is not a brain cancer but simply a spread of the same cells that were in the lung into the brain.
Multidisciplinary team (MDT): A term used to describe all the different health professionals who may be involved in your care.

Palliative: This is treatment that you may receive from the doctor which although will help your cancer will not cure you. Palliative treatment takes many forms including chemotherapy or radiotherapy or may be drug treatment such as painkillers to relieve some of the symptoms that patients may experience.

Pleural effusion: This is fluid that collects between the lung and the outer bag. This fluid may result in the chest not being able to expand as easily at it would do normally. This can make you short of breath. It is detected by the doctor tapping over your chest with his hands and then listening and is confirmed by the use of an X-ray.

Pleurodesis: This is a simple procedure where a pleural effusion is drained and some chemicals are left in the space where the fluid was. It is hoped that these chemicals will cause the layers around the lung to knit together therefore allowing no space for the pleural effusion to come back again. This procedure can be done very simply on the ward and does not require an anaesthetic or cause a large wound.

Signs: The doctor or nurse looks for signs when they examine you. These may include a lump or bump in your stomach or abdomen, a swollen gland in your neck or an abnormal sound when the doctor taps it.

Staging: These are medical tests to establish the extent of a cancer. Staging is a way of describing the size and any spread of cancer and is an important factor in deciding the best treatment for you.

Symptoms: These are a collection of things that you experience. A cough is the most well-known symptom of lung cancer, but there are others that you need to be aware of. These include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Ongoing chest infections
  • Feeling breathless for no reason
  • Chest or shoulder pains
  • Loss of appetite
  • Change in a long-term cough, or a cough that gets worse
  • Coughing up blood
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained fatigue or lack of energy
  • Hoarseness in voice.

Tumour: This is another name for a growth. Both growths and tumours can be benign or malignant. Sometimes a doctor may use the term tumour or growth because they are trying to avoid using the word cancer. It is important then that you ask whether this growth or tumour is benign or malignant.