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 types of cancer

We can group cancer according to the type of cell they start in. There are 5 main types:

  • carcinoma – cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs. There are different 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 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

We can also classify cancers 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.

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

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).

Adenocarcinoma

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

Transitional cell carcinoma

Transitional cells are cells that can stretch as an organ expands. 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.

Basal cell carcinoma

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

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 organs. 

Sarcomas are much less common than carcinomas. They are usually grouped into 2 main types:

  • bone sarcomas (osteosarcoma)
  • soft tissue sarcomas

Altogether, these make up less than 1 in every 100 cancers (1%) diagnosed every year.

Bone sarcomas

Sarcomas of bone start from bone cells.

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. 

Muscle

Cancer of muscle cells is called rhabdomyosarcoma or leiomyosarcoma. 

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 they don't work properly. The abnormal cells build up in the blood. 

Leukaemias are uncommon and make up only 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

Lymphomas and myeloma are cancers of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a system of tubes and glands in the body that filters body fluid and fights infection. 

You can read more about the lymphatic system and how cancer may affect it

Lymphomas

Lymphomas start from cells in the lymphatic system. Because the lymphatic system runs all through the body, lymphoma can start just about anywhere.

Some of the lymphatic system white blood cells (lymphocytes) start to divide abnormally and don't die as they usually do. These cells start to divide before they become fully grown (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 every 100 cancer cases (5%) in the UK. 

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.

Plasma cells can become abnormal, multiply uncontrollably, and only make a type of antibody that doesn't work properly to fight infection.

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

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.

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. Others are cancerous and are more likely to grow and spread.

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

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

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