Two hands are on a dictionary of lung cancer symbols including a medical cross, lungs, and a person undergoing a scan. Highlighters and pencils surround the book.

The Language of Cancer

When you get diagnosed with cancer, you are suddenly and unexpectedly tossed into a whole new world. And, that world has a lot of new words in it that you have likely never heard. Many of these terms could and probably should be an article unto themselves, but I thought it would be good to at least familiarize you with some that you’re likely to hear soon after your diagnosis.

Three common scans you might need

CT or CAT scan

Technically, this is a computerized tomography scan. This is a simple, fast scan that takes a whole series of x-ray images in a matter of moments from all different angles around your body. A computer program takes those images and creates cross-sectional images of bones, blood vessels, and organs in your body. CT scans provide doctors with far more information than simple x-rays do.

Sometimes, you may be asked to drink a barium solution before your scan. This liquid, which I warn you is not generally very tasty, coats the inside of your esophagus, stomach, and/or intestines so that they show up clearer on the scan. A tip I found to be able to get the barium down without gagging was to put a hard candy like peppermint or butterscotch in my mouth while drinking it. Ask your doctor or nurse before trying this. He or she might disagree with my method.

You might also get a CT scan with a special dye called contrast. This is generally injected. It highlights your blood vessels, organs, or other structures so that the radiologist and oncologist can read your scans more accurately.

PET scan

Aka, positron emission tomography, uses a special radioactive dye that is absorbed by your organs and tissues. Where there is a lot of activity, for instance, cancer cells, the spots will “light up” or show as bright spots on the scan. This gives doctors a better idea of where you might have cancer activity.

Unlike MRIs or CT scans, the PET scan shows metabolic changes at the cellular level. It can detect changes in your cells earlier than other scans. However, they also may give false positives, so not all doctors are fans of this scan.


Unlike a CT scan, the magnetic resonance imaging scan uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves, rather than radiation, to create detailed images of organs and tissues. The patient lies on a table that is slid into a large tube that makes a lot of banging noises as it goes around and around your body taking pictures of your organs, bones and/or tissues. If you are claustrophobic, ask your doctor for a sedative before going for your MRI.


Many cancer patients experience what they call scanxiety when it is time for scans. While under active treatment, you will probably have scans every three months. Many, if not most, patients experience fear and anxiety, thus scanxiety, about scans. Many fret about the actual tests and even more, about what the results will be. Some patients find this phenomenon completely debilitating because they are so worried about what the scans will find. If you find this is the case for you, your doctor may prescribe a medication to help relieve depression or anxiety.

Diagnosis, Prognosis, NED, What????


This term doesn’t need much explanation. Quite simply, the doctor identifies what is wrong with you, often using blood tests and the results of one or more of the scans detailed above.


Some doctors will tell you what your expected outcome is, based on their best guesses. Please note that a prognosis is a guess. When a doctor is willing to give a prognosis to a lung cancer patient, especially one with late-stage disease, it is often not very optimistic. Here’s what I want you to remember. When I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer back in October 2012, my oncologist gave me a prognosis of four months. In other words, he expected me to die within four short months. Obviously, he was very, very wrong. My advice to you is to take a prognosis, if given, with a grain of salt.


This is a term you want to hear! Some people say “Ned,” like the name; some say N-E-D, pronouncing each letter; and some say, “no evidence of disease.” However it is said, it is like music to your ears when you hear it.

Because cancer cells are very, very tiny and they can easily hide in your body, most doctors shy away from telling patients they are cured or in remission. Instead, they are likely to tell you that you are NED. The term means that, for now, doctors find no evidence of any cancer in your body based on tests and observations.

What terms confused you when you were first diagnosed? Are there any terms you're unfamiliar with now? Share in the comments!

What do you wish you had known at diagnosis?

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