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.

by Erin L. Boyle Health Writer

When you (or someone you love) is diagnosed with cancer, you may feel thrust into a new world with its own, foreign language, particularly when it comes to the type of disease you’re confronting. Carcinoma. Sarcoma. Metastatic. What do these terms actually mean? Understanding the type of cancer you have will help you know what to expect when it comes to your treatment and prognosis. Being informed can have a real impact on your care. We’re sure you have a lot of questions, and we’re here with the answers you need.

Cancer Types

Our Pro Panel

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.

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.

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.

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

Cancer Types
Frequently Asked Questions
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.

What Are the Different Types of Cancer?

To grasp what kind of cancer you have, here’s a quick refresher on what the disease actually is: Cancer happens when abnormal cells grow out of control. They can do this in nearly any part of your body—your breasts, kidney, even your tongue.

And so, wherever those cells start growing—called the primary site of your cancer—is the type of cancer you have.

When those cancer cells spread through your blood or lymphatic system (the network of tissues and organs that flush out toxins, waste, and all sorts of other undesirables), the areas they invade are called metastatic sites.

Here’s an example of how this works: Say cancer cells start growing in your colon, and spread to your liver. You have colon cancer that’s metastasized to your liver—not colon and liver cancer, but rather colon cancer that’s in your liver now, too. This distinction matters, as we’ll learn when we talk about treatment (but more on that later).

You might have heard your cancer described differently by your doctor, because there are clinical (in other words, medically official) cancer groupings based on where and when your cancer originates.

  • Carcinomas. A carcinoma (the most common type of cancer) starts in the skin or tissue covering the surface of internal organs and glands, and is usually a solid tumor. Examples include breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer, and prostate cancer.

  • Sarcomas. A sarcoma starts in connective tissues, including in fat, muscles, nerves, joints, blood vessels, lymph vessels, cartilage, or bone.

  • Leukemias. A cancer of the blood. The main types are acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, and chronic myeloid leukemia.

  • Lymphomas. A cancer that starts in the lymphatic system, the network of vessels and glands that help fight infection. The main types of lymphomas are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Why Does Knowing What Type of Cancer I Have Matter?

It’s super helpful for cancer doctors (known as oncologists) to know where your cancer cells originated in your body for a host of reasons, including:

  • Figuring out what the biology of your malignant tumor is.

  • Determining what the “drivers of growth,” such as the molecular receptors of the cancer cells, are, to then target those.

  • Learning what the stage is, meaning how big the tumor is and how far it’s spread in the body.

These answers all inform your doctor as he puts together the most effective treatment plan for your individual situation. Your doctor may also offer what’s known as supportive care or palliative care (an approach to providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness) for any potential side effects that you might experience with that particular treatment.

By knowing what type of cancer you have—its origin, grouping, and stage—your doctor can target your specific type of cancer and determine the best treatment for you to have the best outcome possible.

How Many Types of Cancer Are There?

To use an unscientific term, a heckuva lot. More than 120 types of cancer exist. Some cancers happen to both men and women—throat, brain, stomach, esophageal, anal and bone, to name a few. Others affect just men—think testicular cancer, penile cancer, and prostate cancer (the most common of the three).

Gynecologic cancers that affect women include cervical, ovarian, vaginal, vulvar, and uterine (the most common of the female reproductive system). Breast cancer, you might be surprised to learn, affects both sexes. It’s diagnosed in about 265,000 women a year, but also about 2,500 US men.

What Are the Most Common Types of Cancer?

So what cancer types are diagnosed the most often?

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.

From most common to least common, here are the top 13 cancers as of 2018:

  1. Breast cancer

  2. Lung and bronchus cancer

  3. Prostate cancer

  4. Colon and rectum (often called colorectal) cancer

  5. Melanoma of the skin

  6. Bladder cancer

  7. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma

  8. Kidney and renal pelvis cancer

  9. Endometrial (also known as uterine) cancer

  10. Leukemia

  11. Pancreatic cancer

  12. Thyroid cancer

  13. Liver cancer

What’s the Most Common Cancer in Men?

Prostate cancer is the most prevalent. This cancer type accounts for about 20% of cancers in men diagnosed in 2019. About 1 in 9 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. If you’re older, you’re at particular risk, with the average age of diagnosis 66. About 6 in 10 cases are diagnosed in men 65 and older. The good news? The prognosis (the likely improvement or development of the disease) for prostate cancer is good. If caught early, the 5-year survival rate for most men with local or regional prostate cancer is nearly 100%.

The second most common cancer in men? Lung (and bronchus) cancer. Of all cancers diagnosed in 2019, 13% of both men and women, had lung cancer. It’s also the deadliest form of cancer, and one of the most preventable: Smoking is the main risk factor.

Rounding out the top three cancers in men is colorectal cancer. And colon and rectal cancer is more common in men than women. The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 22 (4.49%) for men, whereas it’s 1 in 24 (4.15%) for women.

What’s the Most Common Cancer in Women?

For women, breast cancer is far and away the most common type. About 30% of new cancers diagnosed in women in 2019 will be breast cancer. Older age and simply, well, being born female, are the strongest risk factors.

Next up for women? Lung (and bronchus) cancer. Smoking remains the biggest cause of this cancer (about 80%!) in women, too. Women should be particularly wary of lung cancer, because in the last four decades, the rate of new cases has dropped 36% for men but jumped 84% in women. It could be that there are more women smokers than in decades past, but 20% of lung cancers happen in women who never smoked. Researchers are still exploring what’s behind this, but it may be related to hormones and biology.

The third most common cancer for women—like for men—is colorectal cancer. Age is a major factor, but take note: If you’re younger, you might be at risk, too. While the risk of colon and rectal cancer rises as you age, (for women, the average age at diagnosis is 72), the incidence rate has increased by nearly 2% per year in adults younger than 50. No one is sure why this is, but researchers speculate that it could be caused by a variety of factors, including increased obesity, poor diet, and lack of exercise.

What’s the Most Common Cancer in Children?

It’s awful to think about and far worse to experience, but kids can get cancer too, Pediatric cancers account for about 1% of all cancers diagnosed each year. In 2019, approximately 11,000 children under age 15 were diagnosed with cancer in the U.S.

The most common cancer types in kids include:

  • Leukemia. This cancer of the bone marrow and blood (which also strikes adults, too), accounts for about 30% of all cancers in kids, making it the most common.

  • Brain and spinal cord tumors. These are the second most prevalent type of cancer in children (at 26% of cases). Brain tumors often start in the lower parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum or brain stem, according to the American Cancer Society.

  • Neuroblastoma. This type of cancer starts in early forms of nerve cells found in a developing embryo or fetus. It’s more common in younger children (it’s rarely found in children older than 10). Neuroblastoma accounts for about 6% of all cancers in kids.

What If Docs Don’t Know Where My Cancer Started?

You might be among the 31,000+ cases a year with carcinoma of unknown primary (a.k.a. CUP). In these mysterious cases, the doctor doesn’t know where your cancer originated. And it’s not that your doctors couldn’t figure it out, or don’t know what they’re doing (although asking for a second opinion is always OK, especially in a cancer diagnosis).

Often, a CUP diagnosis occurs after your cancer has metastasized to one or more places in your body, but initial tests can’t determine where it started. Further testing might determine the primary site—or not. The biggest issue an unknown cancer could cause? It makes it difficult for your doctor to determine the best treatment option for you.

What’s the Worst Type of Cancer to Have?

Any cancer that’s aggressive or metastasized can be challenging to treat. The reassuring news, though? Advances in treatment like hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy, and screening options that catch cancer in earlier, more treatable stages, are improving patients’ quality of life and increasing five-year survival rates for varied types of cancer.

Take colorectal cancer, as an example. In 2016 (when about 50,000 people died from the disease), the death rate was less than half what it had been in 1970. That improvement is likely due at least in part to an increase in screening. For colorectal cancer now, the five-year survival rate (which means, the percentage of people who live at least five years after the cancer is found) is 65% overall, but 90% in people with localized stage colorectal cancer.

Lung, liver, and pancreatic cancers can be tough types to treat, mainly because they are often found late—they can have little to no symptoms, and are organs (especially the pancreas) that aren’t examined without a reason.

Real strides have been made in lung cancer treatment, but early detection is still the best scenario. To screen for lung cancer, doctors use what’s called a low-dose computed tomography. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends you’re screened for lung cancer if you:

  • Have a history of heavy smoking, and

  • Smoke now or quit within the past 15 years, and

  • Are between 55 and 80 years old.

For liver cancer, unfortunately, right now there is no recommended screening for people who’re at average risk. If you’re at higher risk (say, you have cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis B infection), you can have blood tests and ultrasound exams every six months.

The same is true of pancreatic cancer—it’s not recommended for people to be screened unless they’re at high risk, but even then there’s no evidence that screening could affect the prognosis.

Does Treatment Differ By Cancer Type?

Absolutely.

Depending on your type of cancer and stage at diagnosis, your doctor will recommend one treatment or several kinds of treatment. For instance, treatment can take the form of targeted therapy (drugs that target the specific parts of cancer cells that grow and spread) as well as chemotherapy (drugs that destroy fast-growing cells, which may include healthy cells as well as cancer cells).

Melanoma, for instance, responds poorly to chemotherapy but well to targeted therapy. Cancers like colorectal cancer do well with the full gamut of cancer treatment options, which may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, target therapy, and immunotherapy.

Remember our example of colon cancer that had spread to the liver? Your doctors would treat your cancer as colon cancer that has metastasized, potentially using a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and chemotherapy. If your cancer originated at the liver (liver cancer), your treatment might be different, possibly including a hepatectomy (when a portion of the liver is removed), liver transplantation, or radiofrequency ablation.

Some cancer cells respond better to the first treatment you undergo, called first-line treatment, than subsequent treatments (called second-line, third-line, and so on).

Where Can I Find More (Accurate) Info About My Type of Cancer?

When you’re diagnosed, it makes sense that you’ll want to find everything you can about your cancer type. Where can you find accurate info about the kind of cancer you’re facing?

One great source is Cancer.net, which features individualized guides for more than 100 types of cancer and related hereditary syndromes. The website, created by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (which many cancer docs are members of), has unbiased, updated, and expert-vetted info.

Other trustworthy sources:

Erin L. Boyle
Meet Our Writer
Erin L. Boyle

Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is an award-winning freelance medical writer and editor with more than 15 years’ experience. She’s traveled the world for a decade to bring the latest in medical research to doctors. Health writing is also personal for her: she has several autoimmune diseases and migraines with aura, which she writes about for HealthCentral. Learn more about her at erinlynnboyle.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinLBoyle.