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MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY EXPLAINED

A breast cancer diagnosis can introduce you to several new medical terms you may have not heard before. Our breast cancer glossary is here to help explain some of these complex terms.

Glossary of Terms

  • A

    ABEMACICLIN (BRAND NAME: VERZENIO

    A targeted therapy used to treat secondary breast cancer.

    ABRAXANE

    A chemotherapy drug used to treat breast cancer.

    ACCRUAL TARGET (RECRUITMENT TARGET)

    The number of participants planned to be enrolled in the trial.

    ADJUVANT THERAPY

    Additional treatment used to improve the effects of surgical treatment. In cancer, adjuvant therapy may include chemotherapy, hormonal or radiation therapy after surgery, which is aimed at killing any remaining cancer cells.

    ADVANCED BREAST CANCER

    Cancer that has spread from the original site in the breast (metastasised) to other organs or tissues in the body. Also known as secondary breast cancer or metastatic breast cancer.

    ADVERSE EFFECT

    An undesired or harmful effect of a treatment.

    ALOPECIA

    Loss of hair from the head or body.

    AMENORRHEA

    Loss of menstrual periods.

    ANASTRAZOLE

    Generic name for Arimidex, a hormone therapy for advanced breast cancer.

    ANGIOGENIC

    Blood vessel formation, which usually accompanies the growth of malignant tissue.

    ANTHRACYCLINES

    A group of chemotherapy drugs commonly used to treat breast cancer.

    ANTIANGIOGENIC MOLECULE

    An orally delivered small-molecule formulation with antiangiogenic and anticancer activity.

    AREOLA

    The area around the nipple

    AROMATASE INHIBITORS (AI) (examples: anastrozole, exemestane and letrozole)

    A class of drugs used in the treatment of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Some cancers require oestrogen to grow. Aromatase is an enzyme that synthesises oestrogen. Aromatase inhibitors block the synthesis of oestrogen. This lowers the oestrogen level and slows the growth of cancers.

    AXILLA

    The underarm or armpit.

    AXILLARY DISSECTION

    Surgery to remove lymph nodes from the armpit. The procedure can be performed either at the same time as breast surgery or as a separate operation.

    AXILLARY LYMPH NODES

    Lymph nodes in and near the armpit.

  • B

    BENIGN

    Not cancerous.

    BIOMARKERS

    Measurable biological characteristics associated with the presence or absence of disease. Biomarkers can help with the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer.

    BIOPSY

    The removal of a small sample of tissue or cells from the body to help diagnose a disease.

    BReast CAncer 1 and 2 genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2)

    Genes that make proteins that help to repair DNA.

    BREAST CONSERVING SURGERY

    Surgery to remove part of the breast. Also called a lumpectomy or a wide local excision.

    BREAST DENSITY

    A term to describe the proportion of fat to fibrous tissue in the breast.

    BREAST PROSTHESES

    Temporary or permanent moulds worn in the bra to replicate the natural shape of the breast.

  • C

    CALCIFICATIONS

    Calcium deposits in the breast which can either be malignant or benign.

    CARCINOMA

    ANOTHER NAME FOR CANCER

    CHEMOTHERAPY (examples: cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, docetaxel and capecitabine)

    The use of medications (drugs) that are toxic to cancer cells. These drugs kill the cells or prevent or slow their growth. The standardised combination of such drugs in the treatment of cancer is referred to as a ‘treatment regimen’.

    CYCLIN-DEPENDENT KINASE 4/6 INHIBITOR (CDK) (example: palbociclib)

    A drug that blocks the CDK4 and CDK6 proteins which stops certain processes that cause cancer cells to grow and multiply.

    CLINICAL TRIAL

    Research conducted with the participant’s consent which usually involves a comparison of two or more treatments or diagnostic methods. Clinical trials are conducted to gain a better understanding of the underlying disease process and/or methods to treat or prevent it. The clinical trial process includes Phase I, II, and III trials.

    COMEDO

    A type of DCIS where dead cells and debris fill the duct. This type of DCIS has a higher recurrence risk.

    COMPLETE RESPONSE

    All detectable cancer is gone after treatment.

    CONTROL GROUP

    The arm of a randomised trial which gets the standard treatment or no treatment.

    CT (COMPUTER TOMOGRAPHY) SCAN

    A type of scan that uses c-rays to take detailed images across the body.

  • D

    D-DISH (DUAL-COLOUR DUAL-HAPYEN BRIGHTFIELD IN SITY HYBRIDISATION)

    A test for measuring Her2 levels in cancer cells.

    DIMERISATION INHIBITOR

    An antibody that prevents a compound or unit being produced by the combination of two like molecules.

    DISEASE FREE SURVIVAL

    Time the patient survives without any detectable cancer after initial treatment.

    DISTANT RECURRENCE

    Reappearance of cancer at another site.

    DOUBLE-BLIND TRIAL

    A clinical trial in which neither the participating individual nor the study staff knows which participants are receiving the experimental drug and which are receiving a placebo or another therapy.

    DUCTAL CARCINOMA IN SITU (DCIS)

    Abnormal cells in the breast ducts, which over time could develop into invasive breast cancer.

    DRUG RESISTANCE

    The ability of cancer cells to resist the effects of a drug.

  • E

    EARLY (Primary) BREAST CANCER

    Breast cancer that has not spread beyond the breast or the axillary lymph nodes. This includes ductal carcinoma in situ and stage I, IIA, IIB, and IIIA breast cancers.

    EARLY MENOPAUSE

    Menopause occurring in women under 45 years of age. Early menopause can be a side effect of some breast cancer treatment.

    ELIGIBILITY CRITERIA

    Participant eligibility criteria for clinical trials can range from general (age, type of cancer) to specific (prior treatment, tumour characteristics, blood cell counts, organ function). Eligibility criteria may also vary with the stage of the disease.

    ENDOCRINE-RESPONSIVE

    Another name for hormone-responsive, or hormone receptor-positive breast cancer. Refer also to “hormone (endocrine) treatment”.

    ENDPOINT

    Endpoints are used to measure the effect of a treatment being used in a clinical trial. Primary endpoints measure outcomes that will answer the primary (or most important) question being asked in a clinical trial, such as whether a new treatment is better at preventing disease-related death than the standard therapy. Secondary endpoints measure other relevant trial outcomes.

    ESTROGEN

    A type of female sex hormone produced by the ovaries, adrenal glands, placenta and fat.

    EXEMESTANE

    A hormone therapy and one of a group of drugs called aromatase inhibitors, used to treat breast cancer.

    EXPANDER IMPLANT

    A Type of breast implant used in breast reconstruction.

    EXPERIMENTAL GROUP

    The arm of a randomised trial which get the new treatment being trialled.

  • F

    FIBROCYSTIC BREAST DISEASE

    A benign breast condition.

  • G

    GENE

    Made up of DNA. It is the basic physical and functional unity of heredity.

    GONADOTROPIN-RELEASING HORMONE(GnRH) ANALOGUE/AGONIST

    A medication such as goserelin or triptorelin that temporarily stops the ovaries from producing oestrogen. This type of medication is only effective for premenopausal women.

    GOOD CLINICAL PRACTICE (GCP)

    An international standard for the design, conduct, performance, recording and reporting of clinical trials; that provides assurance that the data and reported results are credible and accurate, and that the rights, integrity and confidentiality of trial subjects are protected.

    GRADE (TUMOUR GRADE)

    The degree of similarity of the cancer cells to normal cells. Grade is assessed by a pathologist. Grade 1 carcinoma is well differentiated and is associated with a better prognosis. Grade 2 carcinoma is moderately differentiated and is associated with an intermediate prognosis. Grade 3 carcinoma is poorly differentiated and is generally associated with a worse prognosis.

  • H

    HERCEPTIN (TRASTUZUMAB)

    A drug used to treat metastatic HER2+ breast cancer.

    HER2-POSITIVE (HER2-amplified)

    HER2 stands for Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor 2. In HER2-positive breast cancer, the cancer cells have an abnormally high number of HER2 genes per cell. When this happens, too much HER2 protein appears on the surface of these cancer cells. This is called HER2 protein over expression or amplified. Too much HER2 protein is thought to cause cancer cells to grow and divide more quickly.

    HER SIGNALLING PATHWAYS

    One of the many complex processes associated with cell communication and action. The role of specific molecules in a cell which, via a cascade effect, inhibit or allow particular cell functions. Drugs being developed to inhibit these pathways might lead to new ways to block cancer cell growth and kill cancer cells.

    HORMONE (ENDOCRINE) TREATMENT

    Hormone (endocrine) treatment is used to treat breast cancers that are hormone receptor-positive, also known as hormone-responsive or endocrine-responsive. These cancers have receptors for the hormones oestrogen and/or progesterone; they are called ER and/or PR-positive cancers. There are several different types of hormone treatments. Some are taken as tablets (tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors) and some are treatments to turn off or remove the ovaries (injections, surgery and sometimes radiotherapy).

    HORMONE RECEPTORS

    Proteins in a cell which bind to specific hormones. This stimulates the cell to act in a particular way.

    HORMONE REPLACEMENT THERAPY (HRT)

    Drug therapy that supplies the body with hormones that it is no longer able to produce; usually to relieve menopausal symptoms.

    HORMONE-RESPONSIVE

    Also known as hormone receptor-positive or endocrine-responsive breast cancer.

    HUMAN RESEARCH ETHICS COMMITTEE (HREC)

    The Human Research Ethics Committee’s function is to review proposed research in order to ensure that the subject’s rights are protected and that risk of harm is minimised.

    HYPOTHESIS

    Provides a suggested solution based on evidence.

  • I

    IMMUNOTHERAPY

    A type of cancer treatment that utilises the body’s immune system to fight cancer. It is a type of biological therapy.

    IMMUNOHISTOCHEMISTRY (or IHC)

    Used to identify tissue components (e.g. abnormal cells in a cancerous tumour, different parts of biological tissue) by using a marker such as a fluorescent dye or an enzyme. The marker is attached to a type of protein (antigen) that finds another type of protein (antibody) and reacts to colour the target cells. 

    IMPLANT

    A silicone bag filled with saline of silicone gel. An implant is used in reconstructive surgery to create a breast shape. 

    INCIDENCE

    The number of people who are diagnosed with breast cancer per year. 

    IN SITU (BREAST CANCER)

    A term for cancer which have not grown past their original site.

    INDEPENDENT DATA SAFETY AND MONITORING COMMITTEE (IDSMC)

    An independent group of experts or adequately qualified individuals who monitor participant safety and treatment effectiveness data while a clinical trial is ongoing. 

    INFLAMMATORY BREAST CANCER

    A rare form on invasive breast cancer that affects the lymphatic vessels in the skin of the breast. This type of breast cancer does not present as a lump but rather a redness or rash in appearance.

    INFORMED CONSENT

    Informed consent is a process whereby a person gives consent based on a clear understanding of the facts, any implications and possible future consequences. In the case of a clinical trial, these facts, implications and consequences are conveyed in the Participant Information Sheet and any associated materials. 

    INTRAVENOUS INFUSION

    The injection of fluids into the blood stream using a needle.

    INVASIVE

    A tumour which grows into and destroys healthy tissue. 

    IPSILATERAL

    On or affecting the same side of the body. 

    ISOFORM

    Any of two or more functionally similar proteins that may have a similar but not identical amino acid sequence, for example, there are two known isoforms of the oestrogen receptor, alpha (a) and beta (ß).

  • J

  • K

  • L

    LETROZOLE

    A hormone therapy used to treat breast cancer. It is a type of aromatase inhibitor.

    LOBULES

    Working units of the breast capable of producing milk. 

    LOCAL TREATMENT

    Treatment specific to an area of the body. 

    LOCALLY ADVANCED BREAST CANCER

    Breast cancer that has one or more of the following features: may be large (typically bigger than 5 cm); may have spread to several lymph nodes in the armpit (axilla) or other areas near the breast; and may have spread to other tissues around the breast such as the skin, muscle or ribs. 

    LUMPECTOMY

    Also called “Breast Conserving Surgery”. 

    LYMPH NODES

    Small oval-shaped structures found in clusters throughout the lymphatic system. Also known as lymph glands. 

    LYMPHOEDEMA

    Swelling caused by a build-up of lymph fluid, as a result of lymph nodes being removed or not working properly.

  • M

    MADAROSIS

    Loss of the eyelashes or of the hair of the eyebrows.

    MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING (MRI)

    A medical imaging device using a strong magnetic field and radio frequency to produce detailed images of internal body parts and structures. MRI is especially useful for imaging soft tissue like the brain, heart, muscles and tumours.

    MALIGNANT

    Cancerous.

    MAMMOGRAM

    An x-ray of the breast.

    MASTECTOMY

    The surgical removal of the whole breast.

    MASTITIS

    Infection of the breast.

    MEDICAL ONCOLOGIST

    Physician who treats cancer

    MENOPAUSE

    A time when a woman’s ovaries stop producing oestrogen and progesterone.

    METASTATIC BREAST CANCER

    Cancer that has spread from the original site in the breast to other organs or tissues in the body. Also known as secondary breast cancer or advanced breast cancer.

    MICROMETASTASES

    Small deposits of calcium in the breast which can show up on a mammogram.

    MICROMETASTASES

    Small cancer cells that have spread (metastases) beyond the primary tumour and can only be detected by microscopic evaluation.

    MONOCLONAL ANTIBODIES (examples: trastuzumab and bevacizumab)

    A treatment designed to specifically target a cell within the body, particularly cancer cells. Different cancer types can be targeted with different monoclonal antibodies.

    MORBIDITY

    The relative incidence of a particular disease within a defined population.

    MULTIDISCIPLINARY CARE

    A team of health professionals who work together to manage a patient’s treatment and care.

  • N

    NEOADJUVANT

    Treatment given prior to surgery or further treatment for cancer.

    NEUROPATHY

    A disease or abnormality of the nervous system 

    NEUTROPENIA

    When the number of white blood cells falls below a certain level. This can sometimes be a side-effect of chemotherapy/

    NODAL STATUS

    Whether a breast cancer has spread (node-positive) or has not spread (node-negative) to lymph nodes in the armpit (axillary nodes). The number and site of positive axillary nodes can help predict the risk of cancer recurrence. 

    NONINVASIVE

    Self-contained

  • O

    OESTROGEN

    The main female sex hormone produced mostly by the ovaries.

    OESTROGEN RECEPTOR (ER)

    A protein that may be present on certain cells to which oestrogen molecules can attach. The term “ER-positive” refers to tumour cells that contain the oestrogen-receptor protein. These cells are generally sensitive to hormone therapy.

    OESTROGEN RECEPTOR ALPHA (ERa)

    One of two specific Oestrogen Receptor (ER) proteins. In standard clinical practice ERa is the primary ER protein assessed when determining if a tumour is “ER-positive”.

    OESTROGEN RECEPTOR BETA (ERß)

    One of two specific Oestrogen Receptor (ER) proteins. ERß is the less common variation of the ER protein and is not routinely assessed in standard clinical practice.

    ONCOLOGIST

    A doctor who specialises in treating cancer.

    ONCOLOGY

    A branch of medicine that deals with cancer.

    OOPHORECTOMY

    The surgical removal of an ovary or ovaries.

    OPEN-LABEL TRIAL

    A clinical trial in which doctors and participants know which drug or treatment is being administered.

    OSTEOPOROSIS

    A disease characterised by low bone mass and deterioration of bone architecture, which increases the susceptibility to fractures.

    OVERALL SURVIVAL (OS)

    The time from trial randomisation until death from any cause. Overall survival is regarded as the gold standard measure of b

  • P

    PALLIATIVE

    An alleviating treatment that can give relief from symptoms, but is not a cure for the disease.

    PARTICIPANT INFORMATION SHEET

    A document designed to provide participants with relevant information and facts relating to the proposed clinical trial in order for the participant to make an informed decision regarding their participation in the trial.

    PARTICIPATING INSTITUTION

    Any public or private hospital or facility where ANZBCTG clinical trials are conducted.

    PATHOLOGIST 

    Physician who identifies diseases by studying tissues or cells under a microscope.

    PHASE I CLINCIAL TRIAL

    A phase I clinical trial is conducted to test a new biomedical intervention for the first time in a small group of people, to evaluate the safety and side effects of the new treatment or intervention.

    PHASE II CLINICAL TRIAL

    The second stage of the evaluation of a new drug in humans; these trials evaluate drug safety and preliminary efficacy (effectiveness) in a large number of participants (up to several hundred).

    PHASE III CLINICAL TRIAL

    The most rigorous and extensive type of scientific clinical investigation of a new treatment. These trials are designed to determine the effectiveness of a treatment, often by comparing it to an existing standard therapy or a placebo, in a large number of participants (typically hundreds or thousands). A phase III trial is generally required before a drug would be approved by regulatory authorities for general use.

    PHASE IV CLINCIAL TRIAL

    Conducted after the new treatment or intervention has been marketed and approved. A phase IV trial aims to learn more about the side effects and safety of the new treatment, the long-term risks and benefits of the new treatment and how effective the treatment is when used in the general population over a longer period of time.

    PI3K (Phosphatidylinositol 3’-kinase)

    a protein produced by the body that can change the cell-to-cell communications which affect cell growth and survival.

    PLACEBO

    An inert tablet (such as a sugar pill), liquid or powder that has no active ingredient. In clinical trials, experimental treatments are often compared with a placebo to assess the treatment’s effectiveness.

    PREDICTIVE FACTOR

    A finding which assists a clinician to assess whether an individual’s cancer will respond either positively or negatively to a particular treatment. For example, the presence of oestrogen receptors predicts for response to hormone treatment. This term is often confused with “prognostic factor”.

    PREVENTION TRIAL

    A trial aiming to find better ways to prevent breast cancer in healthy women.

    PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR (PI)

    The person responsible for overseeing all aspects of a clinical trial at an ANZBCTG participating institution; recruiting participants; obtaining informed consent; and collecting data.

    PROGESTERONE RECEPTOR (PR)

    A protein that may be present on certain cells to which progesterone molecules can attach. The term “PR-positive” refers to tumour cells that contain the progesterone-receptor protein. These cells are generally sensitive to hormone therapy.

    PROGNOSTIC FACTORS

    The combination of a number of aspects of a person’s general condition and disease diagnosis. General factors can include, but are not limited to, age, gender, lifestyle, and medical history. Specific disease related factors can include disease diagnosis, stage, tumour size and location and treatment options. The combination of these factors can result in either a favourable or poor prognosis.

    PROGRESSION-FREE SURVIVAL (PFS)

    The time from trial randomisation until cancer progression or death from any cause. PFS is considered a surrogate of overall survival, with the advantage that it can be measured in smaller clinical trials with shorter follow-up. Therefore, it can be used to bring new therapies into clinical practice in a shorter timeframe.

    PROPHYLACTIC MASTECOMY (PREVENTATIVE MASTECOMY)

    The surgical remove of one or both breast to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer.

    PROTOCOL

    A written, detailed action plan for a clinical trial. The protocol provides the background, specifies the objectives, and describes the design and organisation of the trial.

  • Q

    QUALITY OF LIFE

    An individual’s overall appraisal of their situation and subjective sense of well-being.

  • R

    RADIATION ONCOLOGIST

    Doctor who uses radiation to treat cancer or its symptoms.

    RADIOLOGIST

    Physician who uses X-rays, ultrasound and/or MRI to aid in a diagnosis.

    RADIOTHERAPY

    The use of radiation, usually x-rays or gamma rays, to kill cancer cells or damage them so they cannot grow and multiply.

    RANDOMISATION

    A method of preventing bias in research by ‘randomly’ assigning clinical trial participants to treatment groups. Randomisation ensures each treatment group has a similar range and number of participants, such that any differences between treatment groups at the end of the trial can be attributed to the trial treatments.

    RANDOMISED TRIAL

    A study in which participants are randomly assigned to one of two or more treatment arms of a clinical trial.

    RECURRENCE

    The return of breast cancer after a period of remission. During a recurrence, breast cancer cells which have evaded treatment may reappear at the original site or in another part of the body.

    RECURRENCE SCORE

    Obtained by the Oncotype DX® Assay, is a numerical value between 0-100 representing the likelihood of recurrence to distant parts of the body at 10 years post diagnosis.

    REMISSION

    Complete or partial disappearance of the signs and symptoms of cancer.

    RIBOCICLIB

    A targeted therapy used to treat secondary breast cancer.

    RISK FACTOR

    Anything that increases a person’s chances of developing cancer. This can include lifestyle, genetic or environmental factors.

  • S

    SELECTIVE ESTROGEN RECEPTOR MODULATOR (SERM) (examples: tamoxifen and raloxifen)

    A class of medication that acts on the oestrogen receptors of cells by blocking the effects of naturally produced oestrogen within the body. This form of treatment has been shown to be effective in hormone-sensitive breast cancers.

    SENTINEL NODE

    The hypothetical first lymph node or group of nodes reached by metastasising cancer cells from a primary tumour.

    SENTINEL NODE BIOPSY

    Sampling of the sentinel lymph node into which the primary tumour is draining first to determine if a full lymph node exploration is needed.

    SEROMA

    A collection of fluid that forms under a wound after surgery.

    SIDE EFFECTS

    Unwanted effects of a drug or treatment (e.g. nausea, headache, hair loss, etc). Side effects may be short or long term, ranging from minor inconveniences to serious adverse events.

    SILICONE IMPLANT

    A type of breast implant filled with silicone gel.

    STANDARD TREATMENT (THERAPY)

    The current best treatment known for a particular disease or condition.

    STUDY CHAIR

    An adequately qualified clinician assigned by the ANZBCTG to provide clinical advice and guidance for the development and ongoing conduct of a clinical trial.

    STUDY COORDINATOR

    A member of the research team at an ANZBCTG participating institution who takes responsibility for non-clinical aspects associated with the conduct of a clinical trial.

    SUPRA-CLAVICULAR FOSSA

    An indentation (fossa) immediately above the clavicle, or collar bone.

    SURGICAL MARGIN

    How close the cancer cells are to the edges of the whole area of tissue removed during surgery.

    SYSTEMIC THERAPY

    The use of chemotherapy, hormone therapy and/or targeted therapy or a combination of these to target the entire body to destroy any cancer cells that may have spread to distant body parts but are below the level of clinical detection.

  • T

    TAMOXIFEN

    A hormone therapy drug used to treat breast cancer.

    TARGETED THERAPIES 

    A group of drugs that block the growth and spread of cancer. Also known as biological therapies.

    TISSUE BANK

    A place where tissues samples from patients and/pr clinical trial participants are stored and used by researchers to study diseases.

    TOXICITY

    Harmful side effects from an agent being tested.

    TRASTUZUMAB

    A targeted therapy used to treat breast cancer. More commonly known by its brand name, Herceptin.

    TREATMENT TRIALS

    Treatment trials are designed to test the safety and effectiveness of new drugs, biological agents, techniques, or other interventions in people who have been diagnosed with cancer. These trials evaluate the new treatment against standard treatment, if there is one.

    TRIPLE-NEGATIVE METASTATIC BREAST CANCER (TNBC)

    ‘Triple-negative’ is the term given to tumours which do not possess Oestrogen Receptor (ER) and Progesterone Receptor (PgR) proteins, and which do not over express the HER2 protein.

    TUMOUR

    An overgrowth of cells forming a lump.

    TYROSINE KINASE INHIBITOR (example: lapatinib)

    A drug that interferes with cell communication and growth and which may prevent tumour growth.

  • U

    ULTRASOUND

    The use of soundwaves to produce an image.

  • V

    VACUUM ASSISTED BIOPSY

    Used to remove breast tissue for examination under a microscope.

  • W

    WIDE LOCAL EXCISION (WLE)

    >Surgery to remove breast cancer with a border of healthy tissue.

  • X

    X-RAY

    Used to produce images of dense tissues in the body.

  • Y

  • Z

    ZOLADEX

    The brand name for the drug goserelin, which is used to supress the production of the sex hormones in the treatment of breast cancer.

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