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CancerCancer Types

Let's Talk About the Types of Cancer

Understanding the kind of cancer you have can help you better partner with your doctor on a treatment plan. Getting a handle on your particular type will prep you for the road ahead.

    Our Pro PanelCancer Types

    We went to some of the nation’s top experts in cancer to bring you the most up-to-date information possible.

    Swati Kulkarni, M.D. headshot.

    Swati Kulkarni, M.D.Surgical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Surgery

    Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern Medicine
    Chicago, IL
    Marleen I. Meyers, M.D.

    Marleen I. Meyers, M.D.Medical Oncologist, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, and Director of Perlmutter Cancer Center Survivorship Program

    NYU Langone Health
    New York, NY
    Lidia Schapira, M.D.

    Lidia Schapira, M.D.Medical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Director of Cancer Survivorship

    Stanford Comprehensive Cancer Institute
    Stanford, CA

    Frequently Asked QuestionsCancer Types

    What causes cancer?

    The short answer: cancer develops due to changes—a.k.a. mutations—in our cells’ DNA. These mutations can be inherited or acquired. About 5% to 10% of cancers are inherited, known as familial or hereditary cancers. Think BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations, for instance. The remaining cancer types—about 90% to 95%—are caused by genetic mutations that happen during our lifetimes. Experts call these cancers non-hereditary or spontaneous cancers. For some of these types, simple lifestyle changes—such as healthy eating, alcohol moderation, and regular exercise—can help reduce your cancer risk.

    How does cancer spread?

    Once cancer cells start growing, they spread to different parts of the body (a process called metastasis) by breaking off of a cancerous tumor and traveling through the blood or lymphatic system. Commonly, they arrive at sites such as the lymph nodes, liver, lungs, brain, and bones.

    How many types of cancer are there? (meaning lung, kidney, etc.)

    More than 120 types of cancer exist, and they can happen to pretty much every body part, organ, and physiological system you have. Some cancers strike men and women—throat, brain, stomach, esophageal, anal and bone, to name a few. Others happen to just men—think testicular cancer, penile cancer, and prostate cancer (the most common of the three). Some happen to just women—gynecologic cancers that affect only them include cervical, ovarian, vaginal, vulvar, and uterine (the most common of the female reproductive system).

    What is the most common type of cancer?

    That would be breast, colorectal, and lung cancer. These account for nearly half of all cancers diagnosed in 2019 in the United States, excluding nonmelanoma skin cancer, like basal cell cancer (also called basal cell carcinoma). Basal cell turns out to be the most common cancer in the U.S. overall, but because it’s so common and often curable, it doesn’t have to be reported to cancer registries and, so statistics are estimated.

    Erin L. Boyle

    Erin L. Boyle

    @ErinLBoyle

    Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is a freelance medical writer and editor.