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Glossary of Terms

This glossary contains common terms used in liver cancer care:

Acute:  Refers to symptoms that start and worsen quickly, but do not last over a long period of time.

Adjuvant Therapy:  Treatment that is added to the main form of treatment, given in combination with another treatment, or used right after a major form of treatment. For example, ablation and embolization may be used as adjuvant therapy in patients waiting to undergo a liver transplant.

AFP:  Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) is a protein that is normally found in the blood of unborn babies, but if it is found in the blood of adults, it could indicate liver cancer (or another kind of tumor).

ALT:  Alanine transaminase (ALT) is an enzyme mainly found in the liver. Consistently high levels of ALT in the blood can be a sign of liver swelling or injury.

Ascites:  Abnormal build-up of fluid in the abdomen (belly).

AST:  Aspartate transaminase (AST) is an enzyme found in large amounts in the liver and other parts of the body. High levels of AST in the blood can be a sign of liver damage.

Benign:  Refers to a tumor that is not cancerous. The tumor does not usually invade nearby tissue or spread to other parts of the body.

Biopsy:  The removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. Other tests can suggest that cancer is present, but only a biopsy can make a definite diagnosis.

Bone Marrow:  The soft, spongy tissue found inside large bones where red and white blood cells are formed.

Cancer:  Abnormal cell growth in any part of the body with the ability to invade nearby tissues.

Carcinoma:  Cancer that starts in skin or tissues that line the inside or cover the outside of internal organs.

Cells:  The basic units that make up the human body.

Chemotherapy:  The use of drugs to kill cancer cells.

Chronic:  Refers to a disease or condition that persists or progresses, often slowly, over a long period of time, such as chronic hepatitis B and C infections.

Cirrhosis:  Scarring of the liver caused by injury or chronic disease

CT Scan:  An x-ray machine linked to a computer. The scanner takes a series of detailed pictures that the computer converts into images of the liver and other nearby organs.

Enhanced Follow-Up:  More frequent testing than screening involving a wider range of diagnostic tests. Enhanced follow-up usually is carried out if a diagnostic test result is abnormal or inconclusive.

Hepatologist:  A doctor who specializes in treating liver diseases and screening for liver cancer.

Imaging Test:  A procedure that takes pictures of internal body parts, tissues, or organs to make a diagnosis, plan treatment, check whether treatment is working, or observe a disease over time.

Invasive Cancer:  Cancer that has spread outside the layer of tissue in which it started and could possibly invade other tissues or parts of the body (also called infiltrating cancer).

Laboratory Test:  A procedure that uses a sample of blood, urine, or another substance from the body to make a diagnosis, plan treatment, check whether treatment is working, or observe a disease over time.

Liver Function Tests:  Blood tests that help check the liver’s health and detect liver damage by measuring the levels of certain proteins and enzymes in the blood.

Localized Cancer:  Cancer that is confined to the area where it started and has not spread to other parts of the body.

Lymph Nodes:  Tiny, bean-shaped organs that are part of the immune system and help fight infection.

Malignant:  Refers to a tumor that is cancerous. It may invade nearby healthy tissue or spread to other parts of the body.

Metastasis:  The spread of cancer from the place where the cancer began to another part of the body. Cancer cells can break away from the primary tumor and travel through the blood or the lymphatic system to the lymph nodes, brain, lungs, bones, liver, or other organs.

MRI:  The MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner is a large machine that uses radio waves and strong magnets to make detailed pictures of soft tissues inside your body. MRI scanners do not use x-rays.

Nonresectable:  Cancerous tumor that cannot be removed by surgery.

Oncologist:  A doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer.

Oncology:  The study of cancer

Oral:  By mouth (for example, pills, capsules, tablets or liquids).

Palliative Care:  Supportive care or treatment that helps to relieve the symptoms or side effects of cancer and cancer treatment. Palliative care does not cure the disease.

Pathologist:  A doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease.

Precancerous:  Refers to cells that have the potential to become cancerous. Also called premalignant.

Primary Cancer:  The area in the body where a cancer started.

Prognosis:  Chance of recovery; a prediction of the outcome of a disease.

Radiation Therapy:  The use of high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells.

Radiofrequency Ablation:  The use of a special probe to destroy cancer cells with heat.

Recurrence:  When cancer comes back after treatment

Resection, Resectable:  Surgical removal of a tumor. A tumor that can be surgically removed is called resectable.

Risk Factor:  Anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer.

Screening:  The process of checking for a disease or for an increased chance of developing a disease before symptoms develop.

Stage:  A way of describing where the cancer is located, whether or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting the functions of other organs in the body.

Surveillance: The process of screening for a disease that is repeated at regular intervals. For example, liver cancer surveillance is screening that is typically repeated every 6 months. 

Tumor:  A lump or growth formed when normal cells begin to change and grow uncontrollably. A tumor can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body).

Ultrasound Imaging:  The ultrasound device uses sound waves to produce a pattern of echoes as they bounce off internal organs. The echoes create a black-and-white picture of your liver and other organs in the abdomen. Tumors produce echoes that are different from healthy tissue.

Viral Hepatitis:  Infections caused by different viruses that specifically attack the liver, which currently include hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Liver cancer is most commonly caused by the hepatitis B and C viruses.