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How many different types of cancer are there?

Human chromosomes stained with a dye and viewed with a microscope. Courtesy of Denise Sheer at the Cancer Research UK Human Cytogenetics Laboratory.From one point of view, there are as many types of cancer as there are different people, because everyone's genes are different and so no two cancers are exactly alike.

From another point of view, there are as many different types of cancer as there are different types of human cell - just over 200.

However, cancers can be broadly grouped into different types, depending on which tissues they come from.

  • Carcinomas, the most common types of cancer, arise from the cells that cover external and internal body surfaces. Lung, breast, and colon are the most frequent cancers of this type.
  • Sarcomas are cancers arising from cells found in the supporting tissues of the body such as bone, cartilage, fat, connective tissue and muscle.
  • Lymphomas are cancers that arise in the lymph nodes and tissues of the body's immune system.
  • Leukaemias are cancers of the immature blood cells that grow in the bone marrow and tend to accumulate in large numbers in the bloodstream.

These terms often have prefixes that describe exactly what type of cell the cancer originated from. For example, an osteosarcoma is a cancer of the bone.

  • Adeno- = gland
  • Chondro- = cartilage
  • Haemangio- = blood vessels
  • Hepato- = liver
  • Lipo- = fat
  • Lympho- = white blood cell
  • Melano- = pigment cell
  • Myelo- = bone marrow
  • Myo- = muscle
  • Osteo- = bone

Since the first draft of human genome was published in 2002, a huge international effort began to classify all the genes involved in cancer. And further advances in gene sequencing are providing even more detailed information about the gene faults found in individual tumours.

One day soon, doctors may be able to do a quick genetic test on a patient's tumour to determine exactly what genes have gone wrong. They could use this information to work out precisely the right treatment to give the patient, and saving even more lives than they do already.

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Updated: 25 September 2009