Cancer screening terms you should know
Screening exams are essential if you want to reduce your risk for cancer. To get you prepared, our expert explains some of the terms you might come across during the process.
Sometimes the medical world can be confusing. You may be new to a subject and are expected to make decisions that may have a big impact on your health.
That’s why it’s important to make sure you understand at least the basics of what’s going on.
For cancer screening exams, you may know test names like mammogram, colonoscopy, Pap and HPV tests, and PSA test. But many unfamiliar medical terms can come up during the process.
We talked to Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson’s Cancer Prevention Center, about some of the terms you might come across during your screening journey.
These are terms your doctor may use. You also may see them if you are researching an exam. Some refer to tests or procedures that may follow if your cancer screening exam is abnormal.
Cancer screening terms
Adenomas: These are pre-cancerous tumors that form in gland-like cells around organs, glands and other parts of the body. They can be found in your colon with a colonoscopy. They also can develop near other glands, like the thyroid or prostate.
Biopsy: When you have a biopsy, a tissue sample is removed from a suspicious mass and examined for cancer cells. A biopsy can be done with a needle or with surgery.
Cancer screening exam: Cancer screenings are medical tests done when you’re healthy, with no signs of illness. They help find cancer early, when the chances for successfully treating the disease are greatest. You should find out what cancer screenings are right for you, based on age, gender and cancer risk.
CT scan: CT stands for computer axial tomography scan. This test uses an X-ray machine to take pictures from several angles. CT scans provide very detailed images. Some people are concerned that the ionizing radiation emitted from CT scans can harm DNA and cause tumors. But the risk associated with these tests is worth the benefit, in most cases.
Cyst: These are often described as sacks of fluid that can form anywhere in your body. Most cysts are not cancer and some go away by themselves. Others may need to be drained with a needle or removed with surgery, if they are causing troubling symptoms. Cysts are more concerning if they are found to have a mass inside them.
Dense breasts: If you have dense breasts it means you have more glandular tissue, like breast and connective tissue, than fat. Breast density can only be determined by a mammogram. You can’t tell by feel or by size or firmness.
False-positive/negative: A false-positive result is when your screening exam shows there is a problem when actually there is not. False negatives are when your test shows there is no problem when actually there is something wrong. False-positive results are far more common than false-negative results. The more cancer screening exams you have, the more likely you are to get a false-positive result at some point. But in most cases, doctors say the benefits of screening still outweigh the risk that your result may be incorrect.
Genetic testing: Genetic testing involves analyzing a blood sample for specific changes in the DNA, or genetic information. The results help your doctor find out if you are more likely to get cancer because of an inherited genetic mutation like the BRCA mutation. Not everyone needs genetic testing. Only 5-10% of cancers are related to genetics. The decision to get tested is usually based on your family medical history. Learn more about whether you might need genetic testing for cancer.
Lesion: This is an area of abnormal tissue. It often appears like a sore and can be found on any surface inside or outside your body. For example, a dermatologist may find a lesion on your skin, or one could be found during a colonoscopy. Lesions can be benign or malignant.
Lymph node: The lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, which is the body's infection-fighting system. Your body has many lymph nodes, mainly in the neck, armpit, torso and groin. Tumors can develop in the lymph nodes or tumors elsewhere in your body can spread to the lymph nodes.
Mass: A mass is a lump in your body. You may be able to feel or see it through your skin, or it may only be detectable with a screening exam. A mass that is not cancer is called benign. If a mass is cancerous, it is called malignant. These lumps have several causes including fluid build-up, abnormal cell growth, hormonal changes or the body’s response to infection or inflammation. If a mass is found, it will likely lead to more testing.
MRI: MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. This test uses magnetic fields and radio waves to generate pictures of your body’s soft tissue and organs. Your health care professional will examine the images for possible problems. You may have to drink fluid called contrast before the exam to help make the images clearer.
Needle biopsy: These are a biopsies that are done with needles. It could be a fine needle aspiration, which is done with a long thin needle. Or it could be a core needle biopsy where a thicker needle is used. In each, the needle is inserted directly in the suspicious area to draw out samples for examination.
Overdiagnosis: This is when a problem is found in a screening exam and more testing finds a cancer that is so slow-growing that it is not harmful to the patient. Overdiagnosis also can mean a cancer is found that would have resolved on its own. Both cases are a problem because they can lead to unnecessary treatments that might put a patient at risk. A good example of this is the PSA test for prostate cancer. Many tumors are found that would never pose a threat to the patient. This is why MD Anderson recommends men talk to their doctor about best practices for using this test before they start screening.
Polyp: A polyp is a small growth that may turn into cancer. Polyps come in different shapes and sizes and are most common in adults age 50 and older. An example is a colon polyp found inside your colon. These polyps are found through colonoscopy, the gold standard test for colorectal cancer. If your doctor finds a polyp during a colonoscopy, they can remove it during the exam. Polyps also can be found in other places and are often harmless, like nasal polyps.
Precancerous cells: These cells have started to show the first signs of DNA mutations that can lead to cancer. If precancerous cells are found, your doctor might call it stage 0 cancer or carcinoma in situ. The cells may become cancer and spread to nearby tissue.
Precancerous lesion: A precancerous lesion is a collection of precancerous cells found somewhere visible. This can be on the skin, in the mouth or inside your colon or rectum. If you have precancerous lesions, a physician may tell you that you have dysplasia.
X-ray: X-rays are the most common way doctors get images of the inside of the body. They use low doses of high-energy radiation that travel through the body. X-rays are referred to as radiography. Radiologists can spot abnormal areas in X-ray images that may indicate the presence of cancer.