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About rare cancers

Find out what a rare cancer is, and how you might feel about having a rare cancer.

What it is

Rare cancers affect a very small number of people. A cancer might also be considered rare if it starts in an unusual place in the body. Or if the cancer is an unusual type and needs special treatment.

What makes a cancer rare

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, including leukaemias and lymphomas. They develop from the different types of cells in different parts of the body.

Some of these cancers are common, such as breast, bowel, prostate and lung cancer. Some types are uncommon and some are rare.

Experts have slightly different ideas about what makes a cancer rare. Some say that a type of cancer is rare if fewer than 2 in 100,000 people are diagnosed with it each year.

Other experts say it is rare if fewer than 6 in 100,000 people are diagnosed each year. This means that 1 in 5 people diagnosed with cancer in Europe have a rare type.

Research also shows that about 1 in 3 people with a rare cancer have a particularly rare type. 

Sub types of more common cancers

Doctors and researchers are learning more and more about cancer, leukaemias and lymphomas. They are identifying particular features that divide some cancers into sub types. Some of these sub types are considered rare.

Some rare sub types are treated the same way as other cancers of that type. Some cancer sub types are treated differently. For example, small cell cancer of the cervix is treated differently to most other cervical cancers. 

Finding information

It can be more difficult to find useful information about a rare type of cancer. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse if they know of any suitable information. You could ask about the best term to use if you want to look for information online.

To see if we have any information, type the name in the search box at the top of each page. Or look for your cancer type on our A to Z list of cancer types.

You can also contact the Cancer Research UK nurses on 0808 800 4040 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday

Coping and isolation

Many people feel isolated if they have a rare type of cancer. It might take longer to get a diagnosis and to start treatment. And you may not know anyone else with this type of cancer.

You might need to go to a specialist hospital for treatment. This could involve travelling a bit further than your local hospital. But it can be reassuring to be cared for by a team who specialist in your cancer. You are also more likely to meet someone else with your cancer type.

It's important to give yourself time to cope. Ask your doctor or nurse what help and support is available to you and your friends and family.

Last reviewed: 
29 Sep 2017
  • Rare cancers are not so rare: the rare cancer burden in Europe
    Gatta G. et al.
    European Journal of Cancer. 2011. Oct 25. 47: 2493- 2511

  • Rare cancers: Challenges & issues
    RK. Pillai and K. Jayasree
    Indian Journal of Medical Research 2017 Jan;145(1):17-27

  • Rare Cancers Europe: joining forces to tackle a common problem
    R. Schaefer
    Rare Tumors. 2012 Apr 12; 4(2): e24.

  • What is a Rare Cancer? 
    GD. Eslick
    Hematology/Oncology Clinics of North America Year.2012, 26 (6), pp. 1137-1141 

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