Alberta Cancer Foundation

Glossary of Commonly-Used Cancer Terms


A medical condition that comes on quickly and often involves severe, but brief, associated symptoms.

Benign Tumour

A non-cancerous, slow-growing tumour that does not spread to the rest of the body.


Removing specific cells or tissues in order to study them. A liquid biopsy studies fluids like blood or urine.


A variety of diseases that happen when abnormal cells grow together and spread quickly.


Also called Systemic Therapy, a type of cancer treatment that involves special drugs, usually a combination of a few, that attack cancerous cells.


A treatment method that stimulates/suppresses a patient’s own immune system to aid the body in fighting cancerous cells.

Malignant Tumour

A tumour made up of cancerous cells that can spread to surrounding tissue and beyond.


Cancerous cells spreading to one or more sites in the body, usually by way of the blood or lymphatic system.

Radiation therapy

Cancer treatment that involves the use of high-energy radiation, including from X-rays or gamma rays and others, to kill cancerous cells and reduce tumour size.


When cancer symptoms disappear or are significantly reduced.


Staging systems classify a cancer based on where it is in the body, the size of the tumour(s) and how much of it has spread. Assigning a stage helps to plan treatment, predict prognosis and determine how well the treatment will work. It is also a way to create groups of people to study and compare in clinical trials. Depending on the type of cancer, different staging systems are used and can include numbers or Roman numerals.

TNM Staging System

In Canada, the TNM staging system is one of the most commonly used to categorize the level of cancer in the body. It stands for “tumour, lymph nodes and metastasis.” While each letter of TNM can be assigned a separate specific number, generally, doctors will assign an overall number to the cancer according to the following:

Stage 0: the earliest stage where abnormal cells have not entered the surrounding tissue.

Stage 1: usually includes a small tumour that has not spread.

Stage 2: usually means that the tumour is larger than stage 1, but has not yet spread.

Stage 3: the tumour is larger than the previous stage and may have spread to surrounding muscle or lymph nodes.

Stage 4: usually means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body through blood or lymphatic system.


A group of abnormal cells that grow together in a mass or lump. Can be “benign” or “malignant”.