Breast Cancer Terms: The Amoena Guide

Making sense of breast cancer terms.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer you will hear a lot of new and confusing words and medical terms used in relation to your diagnosis and treatment. We have prepared a glossary to explain the most important ones in simple language.


Adjuvant therapy

Adjuvant therapy is the medical term used to describe all additional treatment given after the first course of treatment (which is usually surgery). It is added to kill any cancer cells that may have been missed and to reduce the risk that the cancer will come back. It can include chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, or biological therapy.


In cancer treatment, an antagonist is a substance that blocks the effect of another substance. For example, medication that blocks the stimulating effect of oestrogen on a cancer cell is called an oestrogen receptor antagonist.


An antibody is a protein produced by a type of white blood cell in the blood in order to fight things such as bacteria, viruses, or abnormal cells that it considers a threat to the body.


The axilla is the armpit. The word axillary refers to the armpit area, including the lymph nodes under the arm.


A benign tumour is a non-cancerous tumour. It may grow bigger, but it does not spread to other parts of the body. It is also known as a non-malignant tumour.


A biopsy is a sample of tissue, usually removed under local anaesthetic. This is sent to the laboratory for examination under microscope to find out if the tumour is malignant or benign. The most common types of biopsy are:



BRCA 1 and BRCA2
BRCA is the abbreviation of BReast CAncer gene. This refers to gene mutations, also known as altered genes, which are inherited from parents and which increase the risk of developing breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer. The medical term for a person who has the gene is a gene carrier.


Breast-conserving surgery
Breast-conserving surgery (BCS) is a type of surgery where only the cancer and some healthy tissue around it (the margin) is removed, leaving the rest of the breast. It may change the shape of the breast, depending on how big the tumour is and where it is located.  It is also known as a wide local excision or lumpectomy.


Capsular contracture
Capsular contracture, a tightening or hardening of tissue, often occurs around implants in a breast reconstruction. The reason: the body treats the implant as a foreign body and forms a capsule of scar tissue around it. This leads to pain, hardening of the tissue or a change in shape. Radiotherapy increases the chances of capsular contracture occurring.


Carcinoma is a malignant tumour that starts in the epithelial cells – found in the skin, internal organs and, for example, the lining of the milk ducts in the breast.


Chemotherapy is a drug treatment that stops cancer cells growing either by killing them or stopping them from dividing. Treatment may be given by mouth (orally), injection, infusion or via the skin.


The problem: chemotherapeutic drugs are non-specific, i.e. they cannot tell the difference between healthy and diseased cells. This can lead to side effects such as loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, or mouth sores.  Chemotherapy is also commonly referred to by its shortened name ‘chemo’.


Compression helps reduce and manage lymphoedema (the build-up of lymph fluid). After breast-conserving therapy or reconstruction, compression bras, bandages or garments can support the healing process by promoting the drainage of lymph fluid and supporting the shape of the affected area. If the breast has been reconstructed with an implant, a special compression belt helps prevent the implant from moving during the healing process.


Contrast agents
Contrast agents are substances used in tests such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound to help to increase the visibility of abnormal areas such as tumour tissue. They are given orally (by mouth), by injection or enema.  They are also known as contrast medium or contrast material.


Expander implant
An expander implant is a type of breast implant used in breast reconstruction. It is gradually filled with increasing amounts of saline (salt water). This stretches the skin and tissue in the breast to make room for a permanent implant.  It may also be referred to as a breast tissue expander or expandable implant.


Fatigue is a tiredness or exhaustion that does not improve with more sleep. Chronic (long-term) fatigue is a common result of cancer and its treatment.


In cancer treatment, grading is used to classify tumour tissue into different degrees. It is decided after looking at the cells in the laboratory and analysing how quickly they are likely to grow.



Hormone dependent
The terms hormone dependent or hormone sensitive describe processes or changes in the body that are caused or triggered by hormones.


Hormone receptors
Hormone receptors are proteins on or in a cell that bind to a specific hormone and enable it to function.


Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
Hormone replacement therapy is a treatment to replace natural hormones when the body does not have enough of them – for example, after the menopause. This is not the same as hormone therapy or anti-hormone therapy.


Hormone therapy
Hormone therapy for cancer is treatment used to block or reduce the level of hormones in the body. In breast cancer, it is used to slow or stop the growth of cancer in tumours that are influenced by the hormones oestrogen or progesterone.  It is also known as anti-hormone therapy, hormonal therapy or hormone treatment.


Inflammatory breast cancer
Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer that gets its name from the red, inflamed appearance on the skin of the affected breast.


Invasive breast cancer
Most breast cancers diagnosed are invasive breast cancer. This means that the cancer cells have spread from where they started and moved into the tissue nearby. They can also potentially travel further to the lymph nodes and the rest of the body.


Local recurrence
Local recurrence means that the cancer has come back in the original tumour area.


A lumpectomy is an operation in which only the tumour is removed from the breast, leaving the healthy breast tissue intact. It may also be referred to as a wide local excision or breast-conserving surgery.


Lymphatic drainage
Lymphatic drainage is a form of massage for the treatment of lymphoedema. It consists of gentle, circular movements performed by trained therapists. The aim is to release the accumulated fluid in the tissue and to stimulate the lymphatic flow. It is usually combined with compression garments or bandaging and deep breathing in order to prevent the lymphoedema from returning after treatment.   It is also known as manual lymph drainage (MLD) or lymphatic massage. There is a simplified version, known as simple lymphatic drainage (SLD), which is a form of skin massage you can carry out on yourself or ask a family member to carry out for you. It is important to learn this from a trained therapist.


Lymphoedema is swelling caused by the accumulation of protein-containing lymph fluid in the tissue. It arises, for example, when lymphatic vessels or nodes have been damaged or surgically removed and the lymphatic fluid can no longer drain properly. In women with breast cancer, swelling often forms in the armpit or arm, and sometimes on the chest or hand, after surgery and/or radiotherapy. It is sometimes known as secondary lymphoedema. It often begins with a feeling of heaviness and tension in the affected areas.


Magnetic resonance imaging
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a method of examination in which images of the inside of the body are made. To create this, the patient’s body is irradiated with a strong magnetic field and radio waves. In this way, fabrics and structures can be separated from each other due to their different water content. An MRI does not cause radiation exposure.


Malignant tumours
Malignant or cancerous tumours have malignant cells that can spread to nearby tissue and other parts of the body. They usually grow faster than non-cancerous, benign tumours.


Mammary carcinoma
Mammary carcinoma is the medical term for breast cancer.


A mammogram is a breast X-ray. It is one of the most commonly used methods for the early detection and diagnosis of breast cancer.


The margin is the border of normal tissue surrounding a tumour that is removed for safety in breast-conserving surgery.


Mastectomy is the medical term for the surgical removal of the breast.


Metastases (singular: Metastasis)
Metastasis means that the cancer cells have spread from where they started through the blood or lymph system to other areas of the body. It is also known as secondary breast cancer or secondaries.


Neoadjuvant therapy
Neoadjuvant therapy is treatment to reduce the size of the tumour given before the main treatment/surgery. It may be chemotherapy, radiotherapy or hormone therapy. The advantages of neoadjuvant therapy are that if the tumour shrinks, breast-conserving surgery may be possible. Additionally, the risk of relapse can be reduced.


Non-invasive breast cancer
In non-invasive breast cancer, the cancer cells remain in the area where they first appeared and do not spread into the neighbouring tissue or form secondary tumours.


Oedema is the medical term for swelling caused by excess fluid collecting in the body tissues.


Oestrogen is a female sex hormone naturally produced by the body. It is mainly formed in the ovaries, and to a small extent in the adrenal cortex and in fatty tissue. Some types of breast cancer are described as oestrogen dependent or oestrogen receptor positive (ER+). That means that they are sensitive to the hormone, which stimulates the tumour, causing it to grow.


Oestrogen receptors
Oestrogen receptors are proteins on or in a cell that bind to the oestrogen hormone and enable it to function.


Oncology is the name given to the branch of medicine that deals with the study and treatment of cancer.


Oophorectomy is the medical term for the surgical removal of one or both ovaries.


Ovarian ablation (also known as ovarian suppression) is sometimes carried out as a treatment for oestrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer. This means that surgery, hormone therapy or radiotherapy is used to stop the ovaries producing oestrogen.


Palliative care
Palliative care and palliative treatment focus on slowing down the growth of a tumour, managing symptoms and improving quality of life when cancer cannot be cured. It can include pain management and psychological, social and spiritual support.


A portacath, also known as an implanted port, is a small device placed under the skin, usually in the chest area. It can be used to draw blood and give intravenous (IV) treatments, including chemotherapy. It may stay in place for a few months.


Radiotherapy aims to destroy tumour tissue with focused high-energy radiation. In most cases, radiotherapy is used after breast surgery to destroy any remaining tumour cells and reduce the chance of recurrence. After breast-conserving surgery, radiotherapy is usually given to the remaining breast tissue on that side.


In the treatment of cancer, recurrence means that the cancer reappears after a patient has been symptom- or tumour-free for an extended period of time. Recurrence may occur either at the original location (local recurrence) or in another part of the body (metastases or secondary breast cancer).


Sentinel lymph node
The sentinel lymph node is the first lymph node to receive lymphatic fluid from a tumour and is often the first place where cancerous cells metastasise. In the treatment of breast cancer, the sentinel lymph node is therefore sometimes removed and examined for cancer cells. If the sentinel is not affected, it indicates that the tumour has not yet spread in the lymph system.


Sentinel lymph node biopsy
A sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) is a biopsy carried out to identify whether cancer cells are present in the sentinel lymph node.


Staging refers to the size of the tumour and whether it has spread beyond the breast area. It is described using international classification methods. See TMN staging for more details.


Tamoxifen is a hormone therapy drug used to treat cancer that is stimulated by oestrogen (also known as oestrogen dependent or oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer). It works by blocking the receptors for oestrogen in the cells.


TNM Staging
TNM staging is an international classification used to describe how far the disease has spread.


TNM stands for Tumour, Node, and Metastasis


The system also uses the following classifications:



For example:


The classification T1 N0 M0 in the TNM system means that the tumour is still quite small, the lymph nodes are not affected and there are no metastases.


A tumour is a mass or lump that forms when cells divide more than they should. Tumours can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).


Ultrasound scan
An ultrasound scan is a test that uses sound waves to generate an image of part of the body on a screen. Breast ultrasound is used to diagnose tissue changes in the mammary glands. The method does not involve exposure to radiation. It is sometimes referred to as a sonogram or sonography.


Wide local excision
A wide local excision (WLE) is an operation to remove the breast cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it (the margin). It is also referred to as breast-conserving surgery or a lumpectomy.



Breast Cancer Care (UK) Glossary:

National Cancer Institute (US) Dictionary of Cancer Terms: