Types of cancer

This page is about the different types of cancer according to the type of cell they start from. You can read about

The main categories of cancer

Cancers can be grouped according to the type of cell they start in. There are 5 main categories

  • Carcinoma – cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs. There are a number of subtypes, including adenocarcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and transitional cell carcinoma
  • Sarcoma – cancer that begins in the connective or supportive tissues such as bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, or blood vessels
  • Leukaemia – cancer that starts in blood forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and go into the blood
  • Lymphoma and myeloma – cancers that begin in the cells of the immune system Open a glossary item
  • Brain and spinal cord cancers – these are known as central nervous system cancers

Cancers can also be classified according to where they start in the body, such as breast cancer or lung cancer.

Carcinomas

Carcinomas start in epithelial tissues. These cover the outside of the body as the skin. They also cover and line all the organs inside the body, such as the organs of the digestive system. And they line the body cavities, such as the inside of the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity.

epithelial cells

Carcinomas are the most common type of cancer. They make up about 85 out of every 100 cancers in the UK (85%).

There are different types of epithelial cells and these can develop into different types of carcinoma. These include those below.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma starts in squamous cells. These are the flat, surface covering cells found in areas such as the skin or the lining of the throat or food pipe (oesophagus).

squamous cells

Adenocarcinoma

Adenocarcinomas start in glandular cells called adenomatous cells that produce fluids to keep tissues moist. 

glandular cells

Transitional cell carcinoma

Transitional cells are cells that can stretch as an organ expands, and they make up tissues called transitional epithelium. An example is the lining of the bladder. Cancers that start in these cells are called transitional cell carcinoma.

transitional cells

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cells are found in the deepest layer of skin cells. Cancers that start in these cells are called basal cell carcinomas. They are uncommon.

basal cells

Sarcomas

Sarcomas start in connective tissues, which are the supporting tissues of the body. Connective tissues include the bones, cartilage, tendons and fibrous tissue that support the body organs. 

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 cancers diagnosed (1%).

Bone sarcomas

Sarcomas of bone start from bone cells.

an osteocyte

You can read about bone cancers.

Soft tissue sarcomas

Soft tissue sarcomas are rare but the most common types start in cartilage or muscle.

Cartilage

Cancer of the cartilage is called chondrosarcoma. 

cartilage cells called chondroblasts

Muscle

Cancer of muscle cells is called rhabdomyosarcoma. 

muscle cells

You can find out more about soft tissue sarcomas.

Leukaemias – cancers of blood cells

Leukaemia is a condition in which the bone marrow makes too many white blood cells. The blood cells are not fully formed and so don't work properly to fight infection. The cells build up in the blood. 

white blood cell

Leukaemias are uncommon and make up 3 out of 100 of all cancer cases (3%). But they are the most common type of cancer in children.

There are different types of leukaemia.

Lymphomas and myeloma – lymphatic system cancers

Lymphatic system cancers include lymphomas and myeloma.

Lymphomas

Lymphomas start from cells in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a system of tubes and glands in the body that filters body fluid and fights infection. It is made up of the lymph glands, lymphatic vessels and the spleen.

Because the lymphatic system runs all through the body, lymphoma can start just about anywhere. Some of the white blood cells (lymphocytes) start to divide abnormally. And they don't naturally die off as they usually do. These cells start to divide before they are fully mature so they can't fight infection. 

The abnormal lymphocytes start to collect in the lymph nodes or other places such as the bone marrow or spleen. They can then grow into tumours.

Lymphomas make up about 5 out of 100 of all cancer cases in the UK (5%). 

You can find out about lymphomas.

Myeloma

Myeloma is also known as multiple myeloma. It is a cancer that starts in plasma cells. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell made in the bone marrow. They produce antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, to help fight infection.

a plasma cell

In myeloma, the plasma cells become abnormal, multiply uncontrollably, and make only one type of antibody that does not work properly to fight infection.

Myeloma makes up about 1 out of 100 cases of cancer in the UK (1%).

You can find out more about myeloma.

Brain and spinal cord cancers

Cancer can start in the cells of the brain or spinal cord. The brain controls the body by sending electrical messages along nerve fibres. The fibres run out of the brain and join together to make the spinal cord, which also takes messages from the body to the brain. Together, the brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system. The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurones. It also contains special connective tissue cells called glial cells that support the nerve cells.

The most common type of brain tumour develops from glial cells and is called glioma. Some tumours that start in the brain or spinal cord are non cancerous (benign) and grow very slowly but others are cancerous and are more likely to grow and spread.

an astrocyte - a type of glial cell

Brain and spinal cord tumours make up about 3 out of 100 cases of cancer in the UK (3%).

You can read more about brain tumours and spinal cord tumours.

Last reviewed

Rate this page:

Currently rated: 4.2 out of 5 based on 58 votes
Thank you!
We've recently made some changes to the site, tell us what you think

Find a clinical trial

Search our clinical trials database for all cancer trials and studies recruiting in the UK

Cancer Chat forum

Refer your patients to our forum to talk to other people affected by cancer

Nurse helpline

0808 800 4040

Questions about cancer? Call freephone or email us

Share this page