Cancer touches our lives in many, many ways! In addition to the obvious psychological effects of a diagnosis of cancer, it also brings with it a unique lexicon. Cancer terminology is quite unique; however, it need not be complex. In light of the fact that this is breast cancer awareness month, here’s a set of terms that everyone should know, in order to understand the world of cancer.
Malignant: Cancer cells are capable of transforming themselves into other cell types that are somewhat different from the original tissue. Such cancers are known to be malignant. Typically, malignant cancers are capable of leaving the tissue of origin (eg. Breast cancer cells migrate to the liver and grow there) and forming regions of growth elsewhere in the body. This stage is known as the ‘metastatic’ stage.
Benign: Sometimes, some cells start growing and form a localized lump or knot of cells. However, these cells do not change their nature and do not become cancerous. Such lumps or knots are called ‘Benign’, meaning harmless growth.
Genes and Cancer: Genes regulate every life process that we go through. When genes are normal, they produce normal proteins and cells carry out their functions, properly. When some harmful changes occur in some genes – owing to events like exposure to tobacco smoke- then cells can turn cancerous. Sometimes, harmful or faulty genes are transferred from one generation to the next, in some families. These genes are capable of causing hereditary cancers. About 5-10% of all cancers are hereditary.
BRCA1 and BRCA2: These are genes that were identified in breast cancer patients for the first time, by Dr. Mary-Claire King. Abnormal forms of both these genes can be transmitted from mother-to-child. Having a defective BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene in one’s DNA can increase a person’s chance for suffering from breast, ovarian, pancreatic and in the case of men, prostate cancer.
Triple Negative Breast Cancer: Breast cancer can be subdivided into 4-5 types, based on the kinds of genes and proteins produced by them. Most breast cancers have receptors for estrogen (ER) and progesterone (PR). Some also have excessive amounts of a protein produced by the HER2/ neu gene. However, there are cases of breast cancer where the cells do not have adequate amounts of ER, PR and HER2. This subtype of breast cancer is known as triple-negative breast cancer or TNBC. TNBC is usually an aggressive form of breast cancer that is diagnosed at an early age.
Mastectomy: Mastectomy refers to removal of the whole breast or removal of the cancer-affected part of the breast.
Tumor Grade: Pathologists are able to determine the nature of changes in cancer cells. These changes are evaluated to understand how much the cancer cells have changed and whether they have invaded other surrounding tissues as well. The tumors are then put into various buckets – tumor grades- based on these two criteria.
Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) – When a few cells of the mammary glands start developing into cancerous cells, yet the cells are situated inside the milk glands in the breast, the cancer is termed as ductal carcinoma in situ or DCIS. In situ means it is located at its natural site.
Systemic Therapy: Therapy like chemotherapy, although intended for just one tissue, can spread through the entire body, and hence is also understood as ‘systemic’ or system-wide therapy, in medical terminology.
Shefali Sabharanjak, PhD