Commonly used terms in treatment

Jemma Mearns
Below are some of the terms commonly used when talking about the treatment of childhood cancer.

Click on the term to reveal the explanation.

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A benign tumour is not cancerous. It may, however, still cause problems depending on its location.
If doctors suspect that a tumour is cancerous, a surgeon may remove part of it to examine under a microscope. This may either been done by a needle, which is put into the tumour through the skin to remove a sample of cells, or by open biopsy, where a small piece of the tumour is taken during a small operation.

The cells will be sent to a laboratory for examination; the results may take several days.
Bone marrow transplant
Bone marrow transplantation is the term previously used to describe stem cell transplantation – see below.

The new terminology reflects the less invasive method now used to collect stem cells from the donor’s circulating blood rather than their bone marrow.
Central line
A central line is a tube which is used to give chemotherapy. It goes into the chest and directly into one of the major blood vessels. It usually stays in place for the duration of treatment.

The end of the central line protrudes from the chest and is sealed off with a cap.

Having a central line avoids the needs for repeated injections as all intravenous medication can be given through the line. The line can also be used to collect blood samples which are frequently required during treatment.
Chemotherapy is the term used to describe the drugs which a child is given to kill the cancer cells.

These drugs may be taken orally (by mouth), intravenously (injected directly into a vein), intramuscularly (injected directly into the muscle) or intrathecally (directly into the spinal fluid via a lumbar puncture).

Clinical trials
A clinical trial is a scientific comparison of one or more treatment options to determine which offers the best outcome. Information gathered from successive trials has been one of the most important factors in the increasing survival rates for childhood cancers.

Taking part in a clinical trial is entirely voluntary and children who do not take part will receive the current standard treatment.
CT (computerized tomography) scan
A CT scan shows up areas of the inside of the body. The CT scanner takes a series of x-rays from different angles. A computer uses the x-rays to build up a 3D picture of the inside of the body. CT scans are painless but the child may be given a sedative or general anaesthetic to make sure that they lie still.
Donor lymphocyte infusion (DLI)
DLI is a treatment used in leukaemia patients who have relapsed following a stem cell (also known as bone marrow) transplant. The procedure uses lymphocytes (white blood cells) from the same donor to boost the life-saving effects of the original transplant.
Hickman line
Hickman line is another term for ‘central line’ – see above.
Histology refers to the microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues. When cells or tissues are taken by biopsy, they are examined under a microscope to aid diagnosis.
Lumbar puncture
Lumbar puncture is a procedure whereby a needle is inserted into the lower part of the spine to take a sample of fluid. The fluid is known as cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and it can be tested to look for evidence of cancer cells, infection, and raised pressure in the central nervous system. It can also be used to inject chemotherapy into the cerebrospinal fluid, called intra-thecal treatment. This can be done under general anaesthetic in very young children, as they need to lie very still. Teenagers may be able to tolerate the procedure using local anaesthetic to numb the skin."
A malignant tumour is cancerous. If a tumour is malignant it grows uncontrollably and can travel to other parts of the body.
Metastases (also known as secondary tumours) are tumours that have spread from a first (primary) tumour in another part of the body.
Minimal residual disease
Minimal residual disease (MRD) is the term used to describe the presence of residual cancer cells, when there are so few present that they cannot be detected by routine means.

Tests have been developed that enable doctors to measure MRD, and it has been shown in children with leukaemia that MRD levels are an important predictor of relapse. MRD measurement has now been incorporated as part of the standard treatment regime for children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL): children with high levels of MRD are given more intensive treatment to prevent relapse.

Read more: Minimal residual disease
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
An MRI scan is similar to a CT scan (see above) but uses magnetism instead of x-rays to build up the pictures. The scan is painless but it can be frightening as the machine is very noisy and the child has to lie in a narrow tunnel. The child may be given a sedative or a general anaesthetic to make sure that they lie still. They will also be given earplugs or headphones to wear.
A portacath is a small chamber or reservoir that sits under the patient's skin at the end of their central line. Chemotherapy drugs are given by inserting a needle into the chamber. The portacath stays in place for as long as treatment is needed.

The main advantage of a portacath is that it is not visible on the outside of the body. There is no tube coming out of the chest, as there is with a central line. But some people prefer a central line because they don't like having a needle put in each time they need treatment.

It is possible to have the area over the portacath numbed with a local anaesthetic cream before the needle is put in.

PET (positron emission tomography) scan
A PET scan uses low-dose radioactive glucose to measure the activity of cells in different parts of the body. A very small amount of a mildly radioactive substance is injected into a vein, usually in the arm. A scan is taken a couple of hours later. Areas of cancer show up on the scan because they are usually more active than surrounding tissue.

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells in one area of the body, while doing as little harm as possible to healthy cells. The treatment is usually given as a series of short daily sessions over a few weeks.

Radiotherapy is also used in children with leukaemia who require a stem cell (bone marrow) transplant. Radiotherapy is used to destroy their existing bone marrow prior to transplantation.
A child is said to have achieved remission when there is no evidence of the disease using standard tests. There may still be minimal residual disease present at remission (see minimal residual disease, above), hence the need for further blocks of treatment.

Read more: Treatments for childhood leukaemia
A child is said to have relapsed if their cancer returns once they have achieved remission. Treatment options for children who relapse will be determined by a number of factors.
Staging of cancer
Staging is a system used to define the size and spread of solid tumours. Knowing the extent of the cancer helps doctors to decide on the best treatment.

Four stages are usually used:

Stage 1: the tumour is small and localized
Stage 2 or 3: the cancer has spread into surrounding structures
Stage 4: the cancer has spread to other parts of the body

If the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body this is known as secondary or metastatic cancer.
Stem cell – or bone marrow – transplant
A stem cell – or bone marrow – transplant allows children to have much higher doses of chemotherapy than they could otherwise tolerate. This improves the chances of curing their cancer but has more side effects.

Very high doses of chemotherapy destroy the blood stem cells in bone marrow, so after high-dose chemotherapy a child will be given stem cells as a drip. These make their way to the bone marrow and start producing blood cells again.

Stem cell transplants can also bring about an important curative effect in leukaemia patients, known as graft versus leukaemia.

Read more: Stem cell transplantation
Surgery plays a very important part in the treatment of cancer. Depending on the size and position of the tumour in the body, an operation to remove it may be the first part of treatment.

Sometimes, surgery may be dangerous or cause too much damage because of the size and position of the tumour. In these situations, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may first be used to shrink the tumour.
Tumour marker
A tumour marker is a substance found in the blood, urine or body tissues that can be elevated in cancer. Tumour markers can be produced directly by the tumour or by non-tumour cells as a response to the presence of a tumour.

Tumour markers can be used to detect tumours via screening programmes for common cancers; they can be used to monitor cancer survivors after treatment by detecting recurrence; and they can be used for diagnosis of specific tumour types, particularly in cases where biopsy is not feasible, such as brain tumours.
Ultrasound scan
An ultrasound scan uses sound waves to build up a picture of the inside of the body. A gel will be spread onto the part of the body being scanned. A small hand-held device, like a microphone, which produces sound waves, is passed over the area. The sound waves are then converted into a picture by a computer.

Ultrasound scans are used particularly to look at the abdomen and heart.
Proton beam therapy
Proton beam therapy is an advanced form of radiotherapy that uses a precision high-energy beam of particles to destroy cancer cells.

Because it is so much more precise than conventional radiotherapy, proton beam therapy delivers a high-dose of radiation to the tumour whilst sparing surrounding healthy tissue.

Proton beam therapy can be particularly beneficial for children with cancer as it can effectively destroy the tumour whilst reducing the potential for both short-term side effects as well as for long-term impairments.

Children with tumours in the brain, head, neck, spinal cord, heart and lungs are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of conventional radiotherapy - including possible problems with growth, IQ, development and heart and lung damage as well as an increased risk of developing a second cancer.

The use of proton beam therapy in place of conventional radiotherapy drastically reduces the chances of these effects.

There are currently no proton beam therapy facilities available in the UK. However it’s important to note that just because we do not have a proton beam machine in the UK it does not mean that proton beam treatment isn’t available on the NHS. In cases where the NHS believe that a patient will benefit from it they will send them to the US for treatment.

In the case of using proton beam treatment for brain and spinal tumours, there is little evidence of its safety or chances to improve survival. Further clinical and scientific research needs to be undertaken to determine which cancers it is appropriate for before it is considered for widespread use.

The NHS is committed to install two proton beam machines in the UK within 3 years when it will become available for the types of cancer which respond to it.

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