The ABC's of Cancer

by Jane Ashley

When we’re first diagnosed with cancer, we quickly learn that it’s a “whole new language” that we must learn to understand and speak. Many types and sub-types of cancer have long, complicated names that are impossible for patients to pronounce. The drugs that treat cancer have equally “impossible” names. Specialized surgical and interventional radiology procedures fall into the “can’t pronounce” category too. 

Ab Cs

An acronym is an abbreviation made up of the first letters of each word and then pronounced as a word — for example, American Cancer Society becomes ACS and National Comprehensive Cancer Network becomes NCCN. Acronyms are shortcuts to make communications easier. Just imagine how long a meeting of the American Cancer Society would last if each speaker had to pronounce every word in their speech. Patients and clinicians benefit equally from using acronyms. Acronyms enable our doctors to communicate more clearly; acronyms allow patients to have a meaningful conversation with family and friends using this cancer lingo.

Learning our ABCs – Here we go. 

While this list is not nearly a complete list of cancer acronyms, these are some of the most commonly used acronyms that most patients will encounter.

ADT Androgen Deprivation Therapy
AI - Aromatase Inhibitor
ALL - Acute lymphoblastic Leukemia
AML - Acute Myeloid Leukemia
APR - Abdominal Perineal Resection (a type of rectal cancer surgery)
ASCO - American Society of Clinical Oncology

BCC - Basal Cell Carcinoma
BMI – Body Mass Index
BRCA - BReast CAncer Gene

CAM - Complementary Alternative Medicine/Treatment
CAT - Computerized axial tomography (scan)
CBC – Complete Blood Count
CEA - Carcinoembryonic Antigen (a tumor marker for colorectal cancer)
CDC - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
CGL - Chronic Granulocytic Leukemia
CLL - Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
CML - Chronic Myeloid Leukemia
CMML - Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia
CRC - Colorectal Cancer
CT - Computed Tomography
CUP - Cancer of Unknown Primary

DCIS - Ductal Carcinoma in Situ
DFS - Disease Free Survival
DNR - Do Not Resuscitate
DRE - Digital Rectal Exam
DX – Diagnosis

EBRT - External Beam Radiation Therapy
ER - Estrogen Receptor
ESMO - European Society for Medical Oncology

FNA - Fine Needle Aspiration, type of biopsy using a thin needle


GIST - Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumors

H&H – Hematocrit and Hemoglobin
HCC - Hepatocellular Carcinoma
HCL - Hairy Cell Leukemia
HD - Hodgkin's Disease (lymphoma)
HER2 - Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor
HIPEC - Heated Chemotherapy used to wash out the Peritoneal/Abdominal Cavity
HNSCC- Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma
HPV - Human Papilloma Virus
HRT - Hormone Replacement Therapy

IMRT - Intensity-Modulated Radiotherapy
IMT – Immunotherapy

LAR - Low Anterior Resection (surgery used for rectal cancer)

MBC - Metastatic Breast Cancer
MDS - Myelodysplastic syndrome
Mets – Metastases
MM - Multiple Myeloma
MRI - Magnetic Resonance Imaging
MRD - Minimal Residual Disease

N/V - Nausea and vomiting
NCI - National Cancer Institute
NCCN - National Comprehensive Cancer Network
NED - No Evidence of Disease
NHL - Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma
NIH - National Institutes of Health
NK - Natural Killer cells, a type of lymphocyte
NKA - No Known Allergies
NP - Nurse Practitioner
NSAID - Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug
NSCLC - Non Small Cell Lung Cancer


OS - Overall Survival

PA - Physician’s Assistant
PCP - Primary Care Physician
PET - Positron Emission Tomography
PFS - Progression Free Survival
PR - Progesterone Receptor
PSA - Prostate Specific Antigen

RBD - Red Blood Count
RCC - Renal Cell Carcinoma
RFA - Radio Frequency Ablation
RT – Radiotherapy

SAE - Serious Adverse Event
SBRT - Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy
SCC - Squamous Cell Carcinoma
SCLC - Small Cell Lung Cancer
SCT - Stem Cell Transplant

TBI - Total Body Irradiation
TCP - Thrombocytopenia
TE - Tissue Expander
TNM - Tumor, Nodes, Metastases (cancer staging system)
TPN - Total Parenteral Nutrition

UTI - Urinary Tract Infection

VATS - Video Assisted Thoracoscopic Surgery

WBC - White Blood Count
WHO - World Health Organization
WM - Waldenstrom's Macroglobulinemia

Y-90 – Radioembolization (treats liver cancer)

Here’s where to find the acronyms for chemotherapy regimens.
Just imagine how much time it would take if our physicians had to use these long, complicated words in every conversation and dictation. They would never get their work done. We’d be even more confused if we had to learn to pronounce the names of some of our cancers and some of the procedures. The ABC’s of cancer language are shortcuts that help our medical team and us.
So here’s a quick acronym description about my cancer journey. “I was dx with CRC. My treatment included FOLFOX, RT, SBRT, APR and more FOLFOX. CT, MRI and PET confirm I am currently NED.” Can you translate my medical journey?

Do you have an acronym that isn't included here? Please post it in the comments.

*These are some more acronyms posted by our community:

From Amanda O'brien

ANC- Absolute Neutrophil Count
BMT- Bone Marrow Transplant
CR- complete remission
GVHD- graft vs. host disease
TBI- Total Body Irradiation
DLI - Donor Lymphocyte Infusion

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