The Positive Side

Spring 2003 

Coming to Terms with HIV

Basic tips on understanding medical terminology

By Cathy Elliott Olufs


LIVING WITH HIV is a constant learning process. Not only are we forced to learn about the disease itself, but in many instances we must learn the medical jargon that’s associated with it.

For those of us who lack a formalized medical education, this is often a difficult process. I remember learning early on during childhood that in reference to the human body there were usually at least two, sometimes three, different names for the same part. There was the common term we all learned (head, arm, skin, etc.), and then there was the obscure “medical term.” How many of us remember having this one pulled on us in the third grade? “Psst! Hey, your epidermis is showing!” Invariably we glanced down, mortified, toward our genitals, assuming we’d left something unzipped, only to have the other kids laugh and say, “Epidermis means skin!”

For most of us who didn’t pursue a medical career, our vocabulary of medical terminology dropped off after high school biology class. I recall during the first few years after my diagnosis striving to learn as much as I could about the disease. I attended countless medical updates and conferences only to come out feeling more confused than when I went in.What in many cases could have been said simply by using good old-fashioned English got twisted around with medical jargon (I guess it’s what separates them from us. Talk about a language barrier!).

But, before we criticize the medical profession, we must realize that these powerful and, in many cases, brilliant people to whom we entrust our lives have spent years, and years, and years in school learning this stuff.We can’t really expect them to flip back and forth; we need to meet them halfway. It wasn’t until I got a grasp on the lingo they were using that I began to understand what they were talking about. In doing so, I began to take charge over my own care.

The basics

Most medical terminology derives from Latin or Greek. If you didn’t take it in school or even if you did, visit the local library and check out a medical dictionary (perhaps your doctor will let you borrow one). The Physicians Desk Reference is great to start with. By no means will you become an expert overnight; that takes years. But at least if you can understand some of the words and how they’re formed, you’ll be well on your way toward making sense of what you read and hear at conferences and updates regarding new medications and research.

First, take a look at the whole word in question. Let’s take the word pancytopenia. Break it down into the various parts: the prefix, root and suffix. Pan is the prefix (meaning all). The root is cyto, referring to cell(s). And penia is the suffix (meaning a deficiency). So the definition of pancytopenia: a deficiency of all blood cells.

Got it? OK. Let’s try another. How about lipodystrophy (everyone’s favourite!). Break it down: lipo means fat; trophy is talking about growth or development. And anything with dys means abnormal. So there you have it. Lipodystrophy: an abnormal development of fat! Here’s an easy one: carcinogenic. Carcin means cancer, genic is another way to say causing, so “cigarettes are carcinogenic,” right? Ta da!

Maybe you’re not as enthusiastic about all this as I am. That’s OK. I’m sure that as you gradually learn this stuff, eventually you’ll come across one of those words that you hear frequently but never really understood, and you’ll be able to use this format to figure it out and say, “Ah ha! So that’s what that is. Cool.”

Cathy Elliot Olufs is a treatment advocate at Women Alive, a treatment-focused nonprofit by and for women living with HIV/AIDS. She’s also a member of ATAC, the AIDS Treatment Activists Coalition. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and has two grown-up stepsons.

From Women Alive, Fall 1999. Reprinted with permission.

Common terms

The following is a list of commonly used medical terms to start you on your way. Good luck!

a = an absence of (for example: a/vir/emia)

aden(o) = gland (adeno/pathy)

alg = pain (neur/alg/ia)

anti = against (anti/retro/viral)

auto = self (auto/immune disorder)

cerebr(o) = brain (cerebro/spinal)

contra = against (contra/ceptive)

cyt(o) = cell (macro/cyte)

dys = abnormal (dys/plasia)

emia = in the blood (tox/emia)

encephal(o) = brain (encephal/itis)

endo = inside (endo/scopy)

erythr(o) = red (erythro/cyte)

gastr(o) = stomach (gastr/itis)

glyc(o) = glucose (sugar)

hem(ato) = blood (hemato/logy)

hepat(o) = liver (hepat/itis)

hyper = high (hyper/lipid/emia)

intra = inside (intra/muscular)

itis = inflammation (pancreat/itis)

leuk(o) = white (leuko/penia)

lip(o) = fat (lipodystrophy)

mal = bad, abnormal (mal/nutrition)

mening(o) = membrane (mening/itis)

my(o) = muscle (my/algia)

myc(o) = fungus (myc/osis)

opsy = to view (bi/opsy)

osis = condition (fibr/osis)

path(o,-y) = disease (neuro/pathy)

penia = deficiency (neutro/penia)

oma = tumor (lymph/oma)

peri = around (peri/oral)

phleb = vein (phleb/o/tomy)

plasia = development (dys/plasia)

rrhe(a) = flow (a/meno/rrhea)

scopy = examination (colpo/scopy)

terato = birth defect (terato/genic/ity)

thromb(o) = clot (thromb/osis)

tox(i) = poison (tox/emia)

troph = development (a/troph/ic)

From Women Alive, Fall 1999. Reprinted with permission.