Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program

Melanoma Glossary of Terms

You may hear many words associated with oncology that you have not heard before. Please ask for an explanation for any terms you may not understand. You may hear the following common terms before, during and after your treatment.

3-Dimensional conformal radiation therapy: 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.

Anaplastic: A term used to describe cancer cells that divide rapidly and have little or no resemblance to normal cells.

Basal Cell Carcinoma: The most common type of skin cancer. It grows slowly and rarely spreads, but can damage nearby tissue. It usually appears on the areas of skin that have been exposed to the sun.

Benign: Not cancerous. Benign tumors may grow larger, but do not spread to other parts of the body.

Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues for examination by a pathologist. The pathologist may study the tissue under a microscope or perform other tests on the cells or tissue.

Brachytherapy (BRAK-ee-THER-ah-pee): A type of radiation therapy in which radioactive material sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters is placed directly into or near the tumor. Also called radiation brachytherapy, internal radiation therapy, and implant radiation therapy.

Breslow Depth (also known as Breslow thickness): A measurement in millimeters of the depth of tumor invasion. Breslow depth is considered the single most important prognostic factor for primary melanomas.

Cancer: 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.

Catheter: A thin flexible, hollow tube through which fluids enter or leave the body. Radioactive materials may be placed in catheters that are placed near the cancer.

Cell: The individual unit that makes up the tissues of the body. All living things are made up of one ore more cells.

Chemotherapy: Treatment with drugs that kill cancer cells.

Clark Level: AA staging system that measures the depth of invasion of a primary melanoma lesion, ranging, from Level I (limited to the epidermis) to Level IV (invading the subcutaneous fat).

Clinical trial: A type of research study that tests how well new medical approaches of screening, prevention, diagnosis, or treatment of a disease.

Contrast material: A dye or other substance that helps to show abnormal areas inside the body. It is given by injection into a vein, by enema, or by mouth. Contrast material may be used with x-rays, CT scans, MRI or other imaging tests.

CT (computerized tomography) 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 CAT scan, computed tomography scan, computerized axial tomography scan, and computerized tomography.

Grade: 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.

Immunotherapy: A type of biological therapy that uses substances to stimulate or suppress the immune system to help the body fight cancer, infection, and other diseases. Some types of immunotherapy only target certain cells of the immune system. Others affect the immune system in a general way. Types of immunotherapy include cytokines, vaccines, bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG), and some monoclonal antibodies.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy: A type of 3-dimensional radiation therapy that uses computer-generated images to show the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities are aimed at the tumor from many angles. This type of radiation therapy reduces the damage to healthy tissue near the tumor.

Intravenous (IV): Into or within a vein. Intravenous usually refers to a way of giving a drug or other substance through a needle or tube inserted into a vein.

Lymph nodes - small bean-shaped structures that act as filters, collecting bacteria or cancer cells.

Lymphoscintigraphy - this procedure is used to identify the nodal basin(s) at risk for the spread of melanoma cancer. This is not an indication that the cancer is present in these areas, but used to locate the node(s) that needs to be removed and biopsied.

Malignant: Cancerous. Malignant tumors can invade and destroy nearby tissue and spread to other parts of the biopsy.

Medical oncologist: A doctor who specializes in treating cancer with chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, and biological therapy.

Melanoma - a cancer that begins in the cells that produce skin coloring. These cells grow abnormally and will spread if not detected at an early stage. It can occur anywhere on the body and may begin in an existing mole or develop as a new growth on the skin.

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

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): 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 scan or x-ray. MRI is especially useful for imaging the brain, the spine, the soft tissue of joints, and the inside of bones

Oncologist: A doctor who specializes in treating cancer.

Palliative care, palliation: Treatment that relieves symptoms but does not cure disease. Palliative care can help people with cancer live more comfortably.

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

Physical therapist: A health professional who teaches exercises and physical activities that help condition muscles and restore strength and movement.

Radiation oncologist: A doctor who specializes in treating cancer with radiation.

Radiation therapy: Treatment with high-energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells. The radiation may come from outside of the body (external radiation) or from radioactive materials placed directly in the tumor (internal or implant radiation). Types of radiation include x-rays, electron beams, gamma rays, neutron beams, and proton beams. Radioactive substances include cobalt, iridium, iodine and cesium.

Risk factor: Something that may increase the chance of developing a disease. Some examples of risk factors for cancer include age, a family history of certain cancers, use of tobacco products, certain eating habits, obesity, lack of exercise, exposure to radiation or other cancer-causing agents, and certain genetic changes.

Sentinel lymph node - this is the first lymph node that a cancer cell is likely to spread to from the primary tumor.

Side effect: A problem that occurs when treatment affects health tissues or organs. Some common side effects of cancer treatment are fatigue, pain, nausea, vomiting, decreased blood cell counts, hair loss, and mouth sores.

Social worker: A professional trained to talk with people and their families about emotional or physical needs, and to find them support services.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma - this skin cancer is less common than the basal cell, but can be more dangerous because it grows more quickly and may spread. It usually appears on the areas of the skin that have been exposed to the sun.

Staging - this refers to the degree to which the melanoma has spread in the body. Stages I and II are early melanoma while stages III and IV are more advanced melanoma.

Stereotactic radiation therapy: A type of external radiation therapy that uses a special equipment to position the patient and precisely deliver radiation to a tumor. The total dose of radiation is divided into several smaller doses given over several days. Stereotactic radiation therapy is used to treat brain tumors and other brain disorders. It is also being studied in the treatment of other types of cancer, such as lung cancer. Also called stereotactic external beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.

Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS): A type of external radiation therapy that uses special equipment to position the patient and precisely give a single large dose of radiation to a tumor. It is used to treat brain tumors and other brain disorders that cannot be treated by regular surgery. It is also being studied in the treatment of other types of cancer. Also called radiation surgery, radiosurgery, and stereotaxic radiosurgery.

Steroid drug: A type of drug used to relive swelling and inflammation. Some steroid drugs may also have antitumor effects.

Surgeon: A doctor who removes or repairs a part of the body by operating on the patient.

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

Targeted Therapy: A type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific types of cancer cells with less harm to normal cells. Some targeted therapies block the action of certain enzymes, proteins, or other molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells. Other types of targeted therapies help the immune system kill cancer cells or deliver toxic substances directly to cancer cells and kill them. Targeted therapy may have fewer side effects than other types of cancer treatment. Most targeted therapies are either small molecule drugs or monoclonal antibodies.

Tissue: A group or layer of cells that work together to perform a specific function.

Tumor: An abnormal mass of excess tissue that results from excessive cell division. Tumors perform no useful body function and may be either benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

Ulceration: The surface layer of the melanoma is cracked and open on microscopic examination.

X-rays: High-energy radiation that is used in low doses to diagnose disease and in high doses to treat cancer.