Chemotherapy Glossary: What Is My Cancer Doctor Talking About?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 26, 2021

An estimated 22,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year in the U.S.. If you're one of them, you might be confused by the many different medical terms your doctor uses to describe your disease and treatments.

This glossary is an alphabetical guide to help you through the process of chemotherapy. It covers many of the terms you'll need to know as you complete your cancer treatment.

Adjuvant chemotherapy: Chemotherapy that is given after surgery to kill off remaining cancer cells and to try and improve your overall survival from the cancer.

Alopecia: Hair loss (from the head and/or other parts of the body), which can occur as a result of chemotherapy. This type of hair loss is usually temporary.

Anemia: A condition caused by a lack of red blood cells, which transport oxygen to the body's tissues. Chemotherapy can damage red blood cells, depriving the body of oxygen and leading to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

Anorexia: Loss of appetite, which can occur as a result of chemotherapy treatment. Anorexia often leads to weight loss.

Anticipatory nausea: Nausea that occurs before chemotherapy treatment. People who have received chemotherapy in the past may experience nausea and vomiting before their treatment begins because they expect these symptoms to occur.

Anti-emetics: Drugs used to prevent the nausea and vomiting chemotherapy can trigger.

Biomarker: A protein or other substance that can be measured in the blood to determine whether a disease such as ovarian cancer may be present. Tracking biomarkers can determine how well a person is responding to chemotherapy. This is also known as a tumor marker.

Blood cell count: A test (also called a complete blood count, or CBC) that is used to determine the number of white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets in a blood sample. Chemotherapy can damage the bone marrow where these blood cells are produced, resulting in lower-than-normal blood counts.

CA125: A protein made by cells in the body that is found in higher-than-normal amounts in the blood of women with ovarian cancer. A test that detects the level of this protein in a blood sample helps doctors determine whether chemotherapy is effectively killing cancer cells. This tumor marker can also be elevated in other cancers and other non-cancer related conditions.

Catheter: A long, thin, flexible tube that is sometimes used to deliver chemotherapy medicines into the body.

Chemotherapy: The use of medications to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs used for ovarian cancer include carboplatin (Paraplatin), cisplatin (Platinol), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), and paclitaxel.

Colony stimulating factors: See growth factors.

Combination chemotherapy: The use of two or more drugs together to treat cancer.

CT scan: An imaging test that uses X-rays to take a series of cross-sectional pictures of the body.

Cycle: One interval of chemotherapy treatment. You may receive one cycle, or dose of chemotherapy, then wait for one or more weeks and have another cycle.

Cytotoxic: Substances, such as chemotherapy drugs, that damage or kill cells.

Delayed nausea: Feeling nauseated one to five days after chemotherapy treatment.

Extravasation: The leakage of chemotherapy drugs from the veins into the surrounding tissues, which can damage the affected tissues.

First-line chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs that are given first, because research has shown them to be most effective for treating a particular type of cancer, such as ovarian cancer.

Fractionated-dose chemotherapy: A form of chemotherapy in which the dose is broken up into smaller amounts and given over three to five days, rather than being given as one large dose.

Growth factors (also called colony stimulating factors): Substances that stimulate bone marrow to produce white blood cells, the immune system cells that protect the body from infection. Chemotherapy can damage bone marrow, reducing the number of white blood cells available to fight infection. Taking growth factor can help people who are receiving chemotherapy better tolerate their treatment.

Gynecologic oncologist: A doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancers of the female reproductive system, including ovarian, cervical, and uterine cancers.

Infusion: The slow delivery of fluid (such as chemotherapy drugs) into a vein.

Intralesional chemotherapy: A treatment in which the chemotherapy medications are delivered directly into the tumor (cancerous growth).

Intramuscular chemotherapy: A treatment in which chemotherapy is delivered directly into a muscle.

Intraperitoneal chemotherapy: A treatment in which chemotherapy is delivered directly into the abdomen.

Intravenous: Medication or liquid that is given through a needle into a vein. Chemotherapy is often delivered intravenously (through an IV).

Leukopenia: An abnormally low white blood cell count. Chemotherapy can reduce the white blood cell count by damaging the bone marrow where these cells are produced. White blood cells are a necessary part of the immune system because they help fight infection.

Metastasis: The spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system.

Mucositis: Sores that form on the linings (mucous membranes) of the mouth, throat, and other parts of the digestive tract. Mucositis can occur from chemotherapy treatment, when the chemotherapy drugs attack cells lining the gastrointestinal tract.

Neoadjuvant chemotherapy: Chemotherapy that is given before surgery, radiation, or another treatment to shrink the cancerous tumor.

Neutropenia: A decrease in infection-fighting white blood cells called neutrophils that can occur from chemotherapy treatment. Neutropenia can lead to an increased risk for infection.

Neutrophil: A type of white blood cell that helps the body fight infection.

Oncologist: A doctor who specializes in the treatment of cancer.

Oncology nurse: A nurse who cares for cancer patients.

Oral chemotherapy: Chemotherapy that is taken by mouth.

Palliative chemotherapy: Chemotherapy that relieves the pain and other symptoms of cancer and may also prolong life (but does not cure the disease).

Pathologist: A doctor who studies cells and tissues under a microscope to determine whether cancer is present.

Peripheral neuropathy: Damage to nerves that results in numbness, tingling, or pain in the hands or feet. This can be caused by some chemotherapy drugs.

Platelets: Cell fragments in the blood that help the blood to clot.

Port: A small IV that is surgically implanted under the skin and used for long-term chemotherapy. Once a port is in place, an IV can be connected to it easily without having to start a new IV for each chemotherapy session.

Prognosis: The possible outcome of a person's disease.

Red blood cell: A type of blood cell that carries oxygen to the body’s tissues. Chemotherapy can damage bone marrow, where red blood cells are produced (see anemia).

Remission: A state in which the cancer has partially or completely disappeared.

Salvage chemotherapy: Chemotherapy treatment that is given to someone who is not responding to other treatments for cancer (see second-line chemotherapy).

Second-line chemotherapy: Chemotherapy drugs that are given if cancer has not responded or has returned after the first round of chemotherapy drugs. Second-line chemotherapy may also be called salvage chemotherapy.

Staging: A system used to determine the extent of cancer spread. The stages for ovarian cancer range from stage I (the cancer is only in the ovaries) to stage IV (the cancer has spread elsewhere in the body).

Stomatitis: Sores and inflammation in the lining of the mouth that can occur as a side effect of chemotherapy.

Systemic chemotherapy: Chemotherapy given by mouth or through a vein that travels through the bloodstream and kills cancer cells throughout the body.

Thrombocytopenia: A condition in which there is a lower-than-normal amount of platelets in the blood. Chemotherapy can lead to thrombocytopenia because it damages the bone marrow where platelets are produced. Platelets are needed to help the blood clot. A lack of platelets can lead to abnormal bleeding.

Tumor: An abnormal growth of tissue, which can be noncancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant).

White blood cells: Cells of the immune system that fight infection. Chemotherapy can damage bone marrow, where white blood cells are produced. A lack of white blood cells can make it more difficult for the body to fight off infection.

Show Sources


National Cancer Institute: "Ovarian Cancer."

American Cancer Society: "Chemotherapy."

Johns Hopkins Pathology: "Ovarian Cancer Glossary."

University of Michigan: "Gynecologic Cancer Glossary."

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