Cancer words for kids

When talking to children about cancer, try to give them explanations they can understand. This may mean finding creative ways to explain cancer, but it’s also important to introduce the correct cancer terms early on as these are words they are likely to hear.

The following list of cancer terms provides two versions of each definition, one for younger children and one for older children. You can also go to our general glossary for any cancer terms that aren’t listed here.

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For younger children

For older children and teenagers


A medicine that makes someone go to sleep so they don’t feel anything when they have an operation.

A drug that stops people feeling pain during a procedure such as surgery. A general anaesthetic puts someone to sleep. A local anaesthetic just numbs one area of the body.


A bump or lump on the body that isn’t dangerous.

Not cancerous or malignant. Benign tumours are not able to spread to other parts of the body.


When the doctor looks at cells in the body to see if they’re healthy or not.

A test to diagnose cancer. The doctor takes small bits of tissue from the body and looks at them under a microscope to see if the cells have changed.

blood count

A test that checks how healthy the blood is.

A test that counts how many red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets there are in the blood.


Cancer is a disease that happens when bad cells stop the good cells from doing their job. These bad cells can grow into a lump and can spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer is the name for over 200 diseases in which abnormal cells grow and rapidly divide. These cells usually develop into a lump called a tumour. Cancer may spread to other parts of the body.


The body is made up of billions of tiny things called cells, and each has a job to make your body work and stay healthy.

Cells are the building blocks of the body. Our bodies constantly make new cells to help us grow, to replace worn-out cells, or to heal damaged cells after an injury.


Special medicine that kills the bad cancer cells.

A cancer treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells or slow their growth.

child life therapist

Someone who helps kids understand what is going on and how to have fun when they are in hospital.

A health professional who helps children manage the stress and anxiety of being in hospital through play and other coping strategies.

CT scan

A test that makes pictures so doctors can see what’s happening inside the body.

A procedure that uses x-rays to create detailed, cross-sectional pictures of the body that show if cancer is present.


When the doctor works out what is making someone sick.

Working out what kind of disease someone has.


Someone who helps people work out the healthiest foods to eat.

A health professional who supports and educates people about nutrition and diet.


A person who gives blood or another part of their body to someone else.

The person who gives blood, tissue or an organ to another person for transplantation.


A doctor who treats people whose blood makes them sick.

A specialist doctor who diagnoses and treats diseases of the bone marrow, blood and lymphatic system.

hormone therapy

A treatment that helps stop cancer cells growing.

A treatment that blocks the body’s natural hormones, which sometimes help cancer cells grow. It is used when the cancer is growing in response to hormones.


For younger children

For older children and teenagers

immune system

The part of the body that helps someone stay well by getting rid of germs inside the body. It fights illness if somebody does get sick.

A network of cells and organs that defends the body against attacks by foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, which can make people sick.


When someone gets sick very easily.

Weakening of the immune system, often caused by disease or treatment.


A treatment that helps the body fight cancer.

Treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

intravenous (IV)

Putting a needle into a vein (where blood flows in the body).

Injected into a vein.


A type of cancer that starts in the blood.

A form of cancer where the cells that make blood start reproducing damaged cells at  a fast rate.

lymph nodes

Lymph nodes are like filters that remove germs that could harm you. Sometimes, the germs can make some of the lymph nodes swell.

Small, bean-shaped structures that form part of the lymphatic system and help fight infection.

maintenance treatment

When someone is given medicine for a long time to help keep the cancer away.

Treatment given for months or years as part of the treatment plan. Often used for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.


Another word for cancer.

Cancerous. Cells that are malignant can spread to other parts of the body.

medical oncologist

A special doctor who uses strong medicine to treat people with cancer.

A specialist doctor who treats cancer with chemotherapy.

metastasis (advanced cancer)

When the bad cells have travelled to another part of the body.

When cancer has spread from one part of the body to another. Also known as secondary cancer.

MRI scan

A way to take pictures of the inside of a person’s body.

A medical scan that uses magnetism and radio waves to take detailed, cross-sectional, pictures of the body. MRI stands for “magnetic resonance imaging”.


Feeling sick in the tummy.

Feeling as if you’re going to vomit. Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy.

occupational therapist

Someone who helps people work out how to do things for themselves again after they have been sick.

A health professional who helps people solve physical and practical problems after illness, so they can lead independent lives.

palliative treatment

Sometimes the doctors and nurses can’t stop the cancer from growing, and they will give someone medicine to make them feel better and get rid of any pain.

Treatment that reduces or stops symptoms but doesn’t try to cure the cancer.

PET scan

A way of taking pictures of the inside of a person’s body. The person is given an injection with a special liquid that shows up in the pictures and helps the doctors find cancer.

A scan in which a person is injected with a small amount of radioactive glucose solution. Cancerous areas show up brighter in the scan because they take up more of the glucose. PET stands for “positron emission tomography”.


Someone who helps a person’s body get stronger after they have been sick.

A health professional who helps people recover their physical abilities after illness and surgery.


What the doctors think might happen after treatment, and someone’s chance of getting better.

The expected outcome of a disease. This helps doctors decide on treatment options.


Someone who helps people keep their minds healthy.

A health professional who helps people with their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.


For younger children

For older children and teenagers

radiation oncologist

A special doctor who uses x-rays that go into the body to kill cancer cells and make the cancer smaller.

A specialist doctor who treats cancer by prescribing and coordinating a course of radiation therapy.

radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy)

Invisible beams called x-rays that go into the body to kill cancer cells and make the cancer smaller.

The use of targeted radiation to kill or damage cancer cells so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. This is different to when you get x-rayed to see inside you (e.g. for  a broken leg).


When cancer comes back and the person feels sick again.

When cancer comes back after a period of improvement.


When cancer goes away after treatment.

When cancer cells and symptoms reduce or disappear because of treatment. Remission may not mean that cancer is cured, but that it is now under control.

side effects

When a person has problems such as feeling tired or losing their hair after treatment. Some people might gain or lose weight, or have other changes. Most side effects go away after some time.

The unwanted effects of treatment, such as nausea, hair loss or fatigue. This is because treatment damages some healthy cells as well as the cancer cells. The healthy cells usually recover after a while (e.g. hair grows back).


When the doctor tells the person how sick they are.

The extent of the cancer and whether it has spread from an original site to other parts of the body.

stem cell transplant

Stem cells are cells that make new blood in our bodies. Sometimes a person’s cancer has to be treated with such strong medicine that their stem cells are destroyed. The person is given new stem cells to make them healthy again.

A treatment in which diseased blood cells are destroyed by high-dose chemotherapy or radiation therapy, then replaced with healthy stem cells. Stem cells are obtained from either the bone marrow or blood of the patient or a donor.


When someone has an operation and a doctor called a surgeon cuts out  the cancer.

An operation to remove the cancer. Sometimes large parts of the body, such as a breast or the bladder, will be removed with the cancer.

targeted therapy

Special medicine that damages or kills cancer cells, but doesn’t harm healthy cells.

Drugs that attack specific features of cancer cells while minimising harm to healthy cells.


A lump in the body that shouldn’t be there. The lump may or may not be cancer.

A new or abnormal growth of tissue on or in the body. Tumours can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer).


A test that allows doctors to look inside the body so they can work out if anything is wrong.

A scan that uses soundwaves to create a picture of part of the body. It helps show where and how big a tumour is.


A test that takes pictures of the inside of the body.

A test that takes pictures of the inside of the body using high-energy waves.

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