THANKS TO RECENT LEGISLATION, patients today have more access to their medical records than ever before. In October 2022, a federal rule took effect that mandated everyone have access to their electronic medical records.

Pathology reports—typically written for physicians and not patients—provide key information about a tumor based on a tissue sample, but they are often packed with medical lingo. This can confuse patients if they review a file without a doctor there to explain it.

If you’ve experienced that confusion, you’re not alone. A study published September 2022 in the journal Surgery found among people scheduled for a screening mammogram, most participants could not correctly define several terms commonly used in pathology reports. Below are some frequently used words you might see on your next lab report.


Not cancerous. While benign tumors can grow, they do not spread to other parts of the body.


A type of cancer that initially forms in the skin or cells that line internal organs. More than 80% of diagnosed cancers are carcinomas.


A way of describing cancer based on how the cells appear under a microscope. High grade means the cancer cells look abnormal and are growing quickly, while low grade means they look like regular cells and are slow growing. Doctors use the cancer’s grade to help determine treatment options.


Cancerous. A tumor can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous). Malignant tumors grow in an uncontrolled manner and can spread to other parts of the body.


An abnormal lump in the body. If caused by atypical cell growth, the mass is considered a tumor. Masses also can be caused by a cyst, hormonal changes or an immune response.


The spread of cancer from where it originated to a different part of the body. This happens when cancer cells break off from the initial tumor and travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other organs or tissues, where they form new tumors.


A test result that shows the absence of a condition or substance. For example, a negative result on a test for cancer means the patient does not have cancer.


An abnormal mass of tissue formed by cells dividing and growing at a faster‑than-normal rate. Also called a tumor, a neoplasm can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (noncancerous).


A test result that shows the presence of a condition or substance. For example, a positive result on a test for cancer means the patient has cancer.

Sources: Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, National Cancer Institute, Surgery

Thomas Celona is the associate editor for Cancer Today.