Head & Neck Cancer: Glossary

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

The following are terms you may hear when meeting with members of your head and neck cancer care team. They have been separated into categories for ease of use. Becoming familiar with these terms can make it easier for you to understand your plan of care.

Treatment Team: The medical providers who will care for you.  

  • Medical oncologist: A doctor who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. 
  • Radiation oncologist: A doctor who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer. 
  • Radiation therapist: A health professional who gives radiation treatment (runs the machine, sets the patient up for treatment, etc). 
  • Surgical oncologist: A surgeon who has special training in performing biopsies and surgical procedures in cancer patients. 
  • Speech language pathologist (SLP): A specialist who evaluates and treats people with speaking and swallowing problems. Also called a speech therapist.  

Treatment Related Terms 

  • Chemoradiation: Treatment using a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. 
  • Chemotherapy: Medication used to treat cancer.  
  • Hyperfractionated radiation therapy: Radiation therapy that is given in smaller doses, twice a day. 
  • Local treatment: Treatment to a limited area. For example, radiation is aimed at only the part of your body with cancer and is considered a local treatment, as is surgery. 
  • Mask: A mask shaped to fit snugly over your head and face will be made for use during radiation treatment. It is made of a hard mesh material and is meant to help keep your head still during treatment.  
  • Regimen: A specific dosage, schedule, and duration of a treatment. Often used to describe chemotherapy or other medication treatment plans. 
  • Simulation: A process used to plan radiation therapy so that the target area is precisely located and marked. 
  • Systemic Treatment: Treatments that go throughout the body, most often a medication (chemotherapy, targeted therapy).  
  • Treatment Plan: The course of treatment you are planned to receive. May be used to describe chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and/or other therapies.
  • Treatment field: One or more places on your body where the radiation will be aimed. Also called treatment port. 
  • Follow up care: Checkup appointments that you have after treatment is done. You will have follow up care with each specialist (surgeon, radiation and medical oncologist). 

Diagnosis & Testing 

  • Imaging Tests: These are radiology tests used to monitor the inside of your body before, during and after treatment. Includes CT scan, MRI, etc. 
  • Staging: A standard way to describe the size and extent of the cancer.  
  • CT scan: A series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles; the pictures are created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. 
  • Endoscopy: A medical test in which a thin tube with a camera attached to it is placed inside the body or into a specific organ for examination.  
  • MRI: An imaging test in which radio waves and a powerful magnet linked to a computer are used to create detailed pictures of areas inside the body. 

Common Concerns During Treatment 

  • Side Effects: An issue, usually unpleasant, caused by cancer treatment or the cancer itself.  
  • Late side effects: Side effects that occur 6 or more months after treatment has finished. Can also be called late effects. 
  • Alopecia: Hair loss; when some or all of your hair, eyebrows and/or eyelashes falls out. 
  • Anemia: A low number of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body.  
  • Aspiration: The accidental breathing in of food, fluid, medications or secretions into the lungs. This can cause serious problems, such as pneumonia and other lung problems. 
  • Dry heaves: When your body tries to vomit even though your stomach is empty. 
  • Dysphagia: A term used to describe difficulty swallowing. 
  • Esophagitis: Inflammation of the esophagus, which can cause a sore throat. 
  • Inflammation: Redness, swelling, pain and/or feeling of heat in an area of the body. 
  • Lymphedema: The build-up of fluid in the body, which causes swelling. 
  • Mucositis: Inflammation in the lining of the digestive system which can cause sores and pain.  
  • Taste Changes: Also known as dysgeusia, is a change in your taste buds from treatment.  
  • Thrush: A condition in which Candida albicans, a type of yeast, grows out of control in moist skin areas of the body. It is usually the result of a weakened immune system, but can be a side effect of chemotherapy or treatment with antibiotics. Thrush usually affects the mouth (oral thrush) or areas where the skin folds over itself. In rare cases, it can spread through the blood system and require medications to be treated. Also called candidiasis and candidosis.
  • Xerostomia: Dry mouth. It occurs when the body is not able to make enough saliva. 
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