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Types of cells and cancer

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This page tells you about types of cells and cancer. There is information about


Different cell types

Your body is made up of billions of cells. They are so small that they can only be seen under a microscope. These cells are grouped together to make up the tissues and organs of our bodies. These cells are basically the same, but they vary in some ways. This is because the body organs do very different things. For example, nerves and muscles do very different things. So nerve and muscle cells have different structures.

The different types of cells can be grouped together or classified according to the job they do, or the type of body tissue they make up. For example there are:


Epithelial tissue cells

Epithelial tissue is basically skin tissue that covers and lines the body. As well as covering the outside of the body, epithelial cells cover the inside too. They cover all the body organs - for example, the organs of the digestive system. And they line the body cavities, such as the inside of the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity.

Diagram of epithelial cells

Most cancers are cancers of the epithelial cells. Cancers of the epithelial cells are called carcinomas. Carcinomas make up about 85 out of every 100 cancers (85%).

There are different types of epithelial cells and these can develop into different types of cancer. For example, epithelial cells can be

Flat, surface covering cells called squamous cells - for example, the skin or the lining of the throat or food pipe (oesophagus).

Diagram of squamous cells

Glandular cells called adenomatous cells - for example, kidney cells or breast cells.

Diagrams of glandular cells

Layers of stretchy cells called transitional cells - for example, the lining of the bladder. 

Diagram of a transitional cell

So you can have

  • Squamous cell carcinoma (of squamous cells)
  • Adenocarcinoma (of glandular cells)
  • Transitional cell carcinoma (of transitional cells)

Squamous cells and adenomatous cells are found in most body organs. Cancers are named after the body organ they grow in as well as the type of cell. So a cancer of the squamous epithelial cells covering the lung would be squamous cell lung cancer.


Connective tissue cells

Connective tissue is the name for the supporting tissues of the body - the bones, cartilage, tendons and fibrous tissue that support the body organs. Connective tissue cancers are called sarcomas. Sarcomas can develop from

Bone cells

Diagram of an osteocyte - a type of bone cell


Diagram of cartilage cells called chondroblasts


Diagram of muscle cells

Sarcomas are much less common than carcinomas. They are usually grouped into two main types - bone sarcomas (osteosarcoma) and soft tissue sarcomas. Altogether, these make up less than 1 in every 100 (1%) cancers diagnosed.

Cancer of the cartilage is called chondrosarcoma, and cancer of a muscle is called rhabdomyosarcoma. These are both rare forms of soft tissue sarcoma.


Blood and lymph tissues

There are many different types of blood and lymph tissue cells. The blood cells are made in the bone marrow in tissue called haematopoetic tissue. Blood and lymph tissue can develop into

Cancers of the blood cells - leukaemias

Diagram of a white blood cell

Cancers of the lymphatic system - lymphomas

Diagram of a lymphocyte

Leukaemias and lymphomas make up about 7 out of every 100 cancers diagnosed (7%). But they are the most common type of cancer affecting children.


Other body tissues and cancer

Other body tissue cells can become cancerous. But these types of cancer are very rare. The biggest group of these rare cancers are brain tumours. Most brain tumours develop from special connective tissue cells called glial cells that support the nerve cells in the brain. These cancers also get their names from the cells they developed from. So cancers of the glial cells are called 'gliomas'.

Diagram of an astrocyte - a type of glial cell

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Updated: 29 August 2013