Medical terminology

When dealing with doctors and other medical professionals, there may be terms used that you don’t quite understand. To help make things clearer, we have created this glossary and hope you will find it helpful. If there is anything you think should be included in our glossary, please let us know here.

3D conformal radiotherapy – Conformal radiotherapy aims to reduce the amount of normal tissue that is irradiated by shaping the X-ray beam more precisely. The beam can be altered by placing metal blocks in its path or by using a device called a multi-leaf collimator. This consists of a number of layers of metal sheets which are attached to the radiotherapy machine; each layer can be adjusted to alter the shape and intensity of the beam.

Adenocarcinoma – Adenocarcinomas are cancerous growths of glandular tissue.

Aetiology – The origins or causes of disease.

Altered fractionation regimens – See hyperfractionated radiotherapy.

Amifostine – A drug used to protect against acute and late xerostomia in head and neck cancer in association with radiotherapy.

Anaplastic thyroid cancer – See thyroid cancer.

Atraumatic extraction – Removal of (in this case) teeth with the minimum amount of trauma.

Biopsy – Removal of a sample of tissue or cells from the body to assist in diagnosis of a disease.

Brachytherapy – Radiotherapy delivered within an organ.

Calcitonin – A hormone that tends to lower the level of calcium in the blood.

Cardiovascular – Having to do with the heart and blood vessels.

Cervical lymphadenopathy – Disease or swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck.

Chemoradiation – Treatment that combines chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Chemotherapy – The use of drugs that kill cancer cells, or prevent or slow their growth.

Chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis – Slowly developing and generally painless enlargement of the thyroid which frequently results in lowered thyroid function.

Clinical oncologist – A doctor who specialises in the treatment of cancer patients, particularly through the use of radiotherapy, but may also use chemotherapy.

Cognitive and behavioural interventions – Types of therapy usually based on talking and practising specific types of voluntary activity. This group of interventions can include, for example, relaxation training, counselling, and psychological approaches to pain control.

Colostomy – A procedure to create an opening of the colon onto the front of the abdomen. The opening is called a stoma. A bag is worn over the stoma to collect the stools.

Computed tomography (CT) – An X-ray imaging technique which can be used when diagnosing and treating cancers of the throat.

Cytologist – A person who specialises in the study of the appearance of individual cells under a microscope.

Cytology – The study of the appearance of individual cells under a microscope.

Cytopathologist – A person who specialises in diagnosis through detecting and identifying disease in individual cells.

Dehydration – This means a person has not had enough water to drink. The body is almost all water and needs water to maintain good health. It can be hard sometimes to drink when undergoing treatment for a head and neck cancer. Water can be given by a drip into the arm (intravenously) if drinking is too hard.

Dysphagia – This is the medical name for difficulty swallowing and this is one of the most common and challenging side effects for patients undergoing treatment or recovering from throat cancer. There are hundreds of nerves and lots of muscles involved in swallowing and eating and radiotherapy in particular can cause damage to this area. The health care professional who will be able to help with dsyphagia is a Speech and Language Therapist.

Electrolarynx – A battery operated device which may be used to help laryngectomees speak.

Endoscope – A tubular device with a light at the end that transmits images to aid diagnosis or therapy. It may also be used to take samples of tissues (biopsy).

Endoscopy – Examination of the interior of the body using an endoscope.

Enteral feeding – Feeding by tube. See nasogastric tube and percutaneous gastrostomy feeding.

Epidemiology – The study of populations in order to determine the frequency and distribution of disease and measure risks.

Epithelial cells – Cells which form a membrane-like tissue that lines internal and external surfaces of the body including organs, vessels and other small cavities.

Fine needle aspiration cytology (FNAC) – A fine needle is inserted into tissue to withdraw cells which are then examined for the presence of cancer cells.

Flap – A tissue graft. A reconstructive technique where areas of fat, muscle or skin are moved from one area of the body to another.

Gastrostomy – The surgical creation of an opening through the abdominal wall into the stomach in order to insert a tube through which liquid food can be administered. This can be used if medics are worried about a patient not getting enough nutrition.

Grade – Degree of malignancy of a tumour, usually judged from its histological features.

Histopathologist – A person who specialises in the diagnosis of disease through study of the microscopic structure of tissue.

Histopathology – The study of microscopic changes in diseased tissues.

Hospice – A place or service that provides specialist palliative care for patients with progressive, advanced disease.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) – An extremely common sexually transmitted infection which can lead to cancer of the cervix, head and neck, anus, penis and vagina. It is only over the last 30 years that the role of HPV in cancer has become clear. The Throat Cancer Foundation is actively engaged in research into the effects of HPV and it’s exact role in throat cancer. For more information have a look at our HPV section.

Hyperbaric oxygen – A procedure where oxygen is given in a pressurised chamber. This allows larger amounts of oxygen to be given than would otherwise be possible. The higher level of oxygen in the tissues provides a better healing environment and can also lead to the growth of new blood vessels in areas where they have been damaged by, for example, radiotherapy.

Hyperfractionated or accelerated radiotherapy – Radiotherapy is usually given over an extended period and the dose given per day is known as a fraction. 

Hyperthyroidism – This is a condition where the thyroid is overactive. This may cause loss of weight, a rapid heart action, anxiety, overactivity and increased appetite.

Hypoparathyroidism – A condition where abnormally low levels of parathyroid hormones are produced. This may be due to inadvertent damage or removal of the parathyroid glands during thyroidectomy. A common symptom is low serum calcium.

Hypopharynx-This is the name given to the part of the body where the throat meet the oesophagus in the upper part of the chest. Cancer in this part of the throat is called hypopharyngeal cancer. 

Hypothyroidism-Deficiency of thyroxine which causes obesity, lethargy and a coarse skin.

Infectious mononucleosis-An infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, also called glandular fever. An acute viral infection that can cause high fever, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes, particularly in the neck.

Intravenously-Intravenously means something is delivered to the body through a tube and a needle into the veins. This usually means a needle into a vein in the arm, hand or chest and then attached to a bag of fluid. This can be used to deliver lots of different things that a patient of head and neck cancer might need: water, blood or chemotherapy can all be delivered intravenously. Often people refer to intravenous medicine as a “drip”.

Laryngectomee-A person who has had their larynx removed.

Laryngectomy-Surgical removal of the larynx.  A partial laryngectomy is where only part of the larynx is removed.

Larynx-The medical name for the throat. This is the part of the body which is affected when you are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. The larynx has three separate areas which can become cancerous – the glottis, the supraglottis, subglottis. The glottis is the voice box and the supra and sub parts mean above and below. The most common form of cancer is of the glottis.

Laser excision-The use of a laser to remove tissue.

Local recurrence-Recurrence of disease at the site of the original tumour following initial potentially curative treatment.

Lymph nodes-Small organs which act as filters in the lymphatic system.

Lymphadema-This is a condition which can affect people who have had a head and neck cancer. It means the lymphatic system – a series of glands which are part of the immune system, becomes blocked and fluid cannot drain properly. It can mean swelling to the head and neck, stiffness in the neck and shoulders, difficulty swallowing and breathing. It can be treated with decongestant treatment, massages and exercises and compression treatment (tight bandages). 

Lymphoma-Cancer of the lymphatic system. There are two main types of lymphoma – Hodgkin’s disease and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Lymphoma of the thyroid-Lymphoma of the thyroid gland starts in the lymph tissue of the thyroid. When it occurs there is usually evidence of chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-A non-invasive method of imaging which allows the form and metabolism of tissues and organs to be visualised (also known as nuclear magnetic resonance).

Malnutrition-Malnutrition is when a person is unable to get enough food and nutrients to fuel their body. This can be a problem for people who had treatment to the throat for cancer as the throat is too sore. There are options to feed artificially such as PEG tubes. 

Maxillofacial-Having to do with the jaws and face.

Metachronous-Occurring at different times.

Metastases – metastatic disease-Spread of cancer away from the primary site.

Microvascular-Having to do with very small blood vessels.

Monoclonal antibody treatment-Antibodies produced in the laboratory from a single copy of a human antibody that can target specific cancer cells wherever they may be in the body.

Mucositis-See oral mucositis.

Nasal cavity-The passageway just behind the nose through which air passes on the way to the throat during breathing.

Nasogastric tube-A thin tube passed via the nose into the stomach down which liquid food is passed.

Nasopharynx-The nasopharynx is the part of the throat (the pharynx) and lives just behind the nose. It is a box like chamber and it’s job is to allow air to pass either direction through the nose. If cancer develops in this part of the head it is called nasopharyngeal cancer.

Neo-adjuvant treatment-Treatment given before the main treatment.

Neurological-Having to do with the nervous system.

Oesophageal speech-Following a laryngectomy the ability to speak in the normal way is lost. There are several methods available to help laryngectomy patients produce sound and learn to speak again. The commonest is a technique known as oesophageal speech. Air is swallowed and forced into the oesophagus by locking the tongue to the roof of the mouth. As the air is expelled, it vibrates the walls of the oesophagus which creates a low-pitched sound which can be formed into words.

Oesophagus-This is what connects the throat to the stomach. Cancer can affect this part of the body both at the “top” where it meets the larynx (throat) and the “bottom” where it meets the stomach. Cancer of this part of the body is called Oesophageal Cancer. Oesophageal cancer is one of the more common types of cancer in the UK.

Oncologist-A doctor who specialises in treating cancer.

Oncology-The study of the biology and physical and chemical features of cancers. Also the study of the causes and treatment of cancers.

Ophthalmologist-A person who specialises in the structure, functions, and diseases of the eye. 

Oral-Having to do with the mouth.

Oral Cavity-This is another name for the mouth. There are several parts of the mouth which can become cancerous – the lips, the cheeks, the tongue, the palette (roof of the mouth). Often people with Oral Cavity cancer will refer to mouth cancer or oropharyngeal cancer.

Oral mucosa-The mucous lining of the mouth.

Oral mucositis-Inflammation of the mucous membranes in the mouth (sore mouth).

Orbit-The bony cavity which contains the eyeball.

Oropharynx-The medical name for the part of the throat which connects the mouth to the top of the throat. This is one of the three parts which make up the larynx and is one of the places where cancerous cells can develop.

Areas included in the oropharynx are: the back 2/3’s of the tongue, the soft palette (roof of the mouth), the tonsils and the top of the throat. Cancer which develops in this part of the body is given the name Oropharyngeal cancer.

Osseointegrated implants-Surgical implants which become integrated into the surrounding bone.

Osteonecrosis-The death of an area of bone caused by poor blood supply.

Osteoradionecrosis-This is one of the most serious side effects of radiation therapy and is when the radiation therapy damages the bone and it is no longer able to repair itself properly. It affects the jaw bones (mandibles) and can also affect the teeth. The higher the dose of radiation received can make the condition worse. 


Otolaryngologist or otorhinolaryngologist-A doctor who specialises in treating diseases of the ear, nose and throat.

Paan – Also known as pan or pahn. See Areca nut.

Palate – The roof of the mouth. The bony portion at the front of the mouth is known as the hard palate and the fleshy portion at the back is known as the soft palate.

Palliative – Anything which serves to alleviate symptoms due to the underlying cancer but is not expected to cure it.

Palliative care – Active, holistic care of patients with advanced, progressive illness which may no longer be curable. The aim is to achieve the best quality of life for patients and their families. Many aspects of palliative care are also applicable in earlier stages of the cancer journey in association with other treatments.

Papillary thyroid cancer – See thyroid cancer.

Paranasal Sinuses – The sinuses are hollow parts of the skull and can be found all around your head. The paranasal sinuses live just behind your nose and have a number of jobs: they create mucus which stops the nose drying out when you are breathing, they increase resonance to the voice, they protect the face and they heat up air when breathing. They can become cancerous.

Parotid Gland – This is part of the salivary gland system. Cancerous cells can develop here. Cancer of the parotid gland is the most common form of salivary gland cancer.

Partial laryngeal excision – An operation where only part of the larynx is removed. See laryngectomy

PEG feeding tube – PEG stands for Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy. Percutaneous means through the skin, endoscopic means a tube and gastrostomy means an opening into the stomach. So a PEG basically is tube inserted through the skin and into the stomach. This is used to help feed people whose throats are too sore to eat.

Periodontal disease – A general term for diseases of the gums, teeth and underlying bone.

Pharynx (pharyngeal) – The passage which starts behind the nose and goes down the neck to the larynx and oesophagus. Commonly known as the throat. The top section of the pharynx is known as the nasopharynx, the middle section as the oropharynx and the lower section as the hypopharynx.

Photodynamic therapy – A procedure where laser light, in combination with light-sensitising drugs, is used to kill cancer cells.

Pilocarpine – A drug which stimulates the salivary glands to produce more saliva.

Positron emission tomography (PET) – An imaging method which reveals the level of metabolic activity of different tissues.

Prophylaxis – An intervention used to prevent an unwanted outcome.

Prosthesis – An artificial device used to replace a missing part of the body.

Prosthodontist – A specialist in replacing missing teeth. A prosthodontist is required for the specifically difficult cases of full dentures and complex rehabilitation of even partial replacements.

Quality of life – The individual’s overall appraisal of his/her situation and subjective sense of well-being.

Radical treatment – Treatment given with curative, rather than palliative intent.

Radioiodine ablation – Treatment with radioiodine to destroy any thyroid tissue remaining after surgery.

Radiologist – A doctor who specialises in imaging.

Radionuclide therapy – Treatment using radioactive isotopes in order to target tumour cells. See radioiodine.

Radiotherapy – The use of radiation, usually X-rays or gamma rays, to kill cancer cells.

Randomised controlled trial (RCT) – A type of experiment which is used to compare the effectiveness of different treatments. The crucial feature of this form of trial is that patients are assigned at random to groups which receive the interventions being assessed or control treatments. RCTs offer the most reliable (i.e. least biased) form of evidence on effectiveness.

Recurrence – The return of cancer.

Resection – The surgical removal of all or part of an organ.

Salivary glands – Glands situated near to and opening into the mouth which produce saliva to aid the initial process of digestion.

Sinuses – Small hollow spaces in the skull around the nose. The sinuses are lined with cells that make mucus which keeps the nose from drying out. They are also spaces through which the voice can echo to make sounds when a person talks or sings.

Specificity – Proportion of people without disease who have a negative test result.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma – The medical name for the most common type of cancer which affects the throat.

In squamous cell carcinoma, the soft skin lining of the throat becomes malignant and the cells become cancerous.

Squamous cell carcinoma accounts for 90% of oropharyngeal cancer cases.

Staging – The allocation of categories defined by internationally agreed criteria. Staging helps determine treatment and indicates prognosis. The TNM staging classification system is based on the depth of tumour invasion (T), lymph node involvement (N) and metastatic spread (M).

Stoma – This the medical term for an opening – a throat cancer patient might have a stoma in their neck to assist with breathing.

Sublingual glands – Another gland in the salivary gland system where cancerous cells can develop. Not as common as parotid gland cancer and may well be classed under the umbrella of Saliva Gland Cancer.

Submandibular Gland – Part of the salivary gland system where cancerous cells can develop.

Cancer of the submandibular gland is less common than cancer of the parotid gland (another part of the salivary gland system).

Thyroglobulin – A protein made by the normal thyroid gland. However, thyroglobulin can also be produced by papillary or follicular thyroid cancer cells. If high levels of serum thyroglobulin (thyroglobulin in the blood) are found following thyroidectomy and thyroid ablation therapy, this may indicate residual or recurrent thyroid cancer.

Thyroid – The thyroid this lives in the front part of the neck, just beneath the “Adam’s Apple” and is responsible for how the body uses energy, creates proteins and controls the body’s sensitivity to other hormones. The thyroid can be affected by cancer. The thyroid can also be affected by radiotherapy for head and neck cancer.

Thyroid ablation therapy – Treatment to destroy thyroid tissue. See radioiodine ablation.

Thyroid cancer – There are four main types of cancer of the thyroid. Papillary cancer is the most common and develops in cells that produce thyroid hormones containing iodine; it most commonly affects women of child-bearing age and tends to grow slowly. Follicular cancer also develops in cells that produce iodine containing hormones, but is much less common and tends to occur in older people. Medullary cancer is rare and develops in cells that produce the hormone calcitonin; it is known to run in families. The rarest thyroid cancer is anaplastic cancer which tends to affect older people and can be confused with thyroid lymphoma; it grows rapidly and can be difficult to treat.

Thyroidectomy – Surgical removal of the thyroid gland.  A partial thyroidectomy is where only part of the thyroid is removed.

Thyroxine – The main active ingredient of the hormone produced by the thyroid gland. This hormone is one of the most important in the body and controls the rate of metabolism. The body needs a regular supply of iodine to produce thyroxine.

Tonsils – Masses of lymphoid tissue that lie on each side of the back of the throat.

Trachea – The windpipe.

Tracheo-oesophageal valve – A valve which fits in the surgically created opening between the rachea and oesophagus preventing food from entering the trachea.

Tracheostomy – A surgically created opening in the lower part of the neck which allows air to be breathed in following a laryngectomy or other type of surgery where it was necessary to divert the trachea.

Ultrasound – High-frequency sound waves used to create images of structures and organs within the body.

Upper aerodigestive tract – The mouth, lip and tongue (oral cavity) and the upper part of the throat (larynx and pharynx).

Vocal cords – Two vocal cords are contained within the larynx, which vibrate together when air is passed over them to produce the sound to be turned into speech.

xerostomia – This is the medical name for dry mouth. This is one of the biggest and most challenging side effects of treatment for head and neck cancer. It is a common side effect of radiation therapy and can make eating, swallowing and speech more difficult.

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Patient journeys

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In this section we are going to look at the importance of nutrition and eating well when suffering from cancer of the head and neck.

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Available Support

There is lots of help available though and we have compiled a list of useful resources which will guide you through the support that is available to patients and their families.

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Further help

Here we have gathered a number of useful resources and phone numbers for those facing up to a cancer diagnosis. This includes general help and information on cancer, smoking cessation, help with stress and more.

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